Summary (TLDR Version)

Perhaps a very subtle condemnation of museums as institutions, which makes a lovely irony if a museum (the Louvre) essentially commissioned it.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: E. Bilal’s (2014)[2] Phantoms of the Louvre

I have much less to say about this book than I wanted to. Since Bilal has proven himself one of the most reliable graphic novelists I have encountered—amongst his works I’ve acquired, his (1992)[3] Nikopol Trilogy, though perhaps his most famous piece, pales next to (1984)[4] The Hunting Party and (1998)[5] The Dormant Beast—I squeaked with delight when I saw this book on the shelf.

Unfortunately, this amounts to merely a plump piece for some kind of special event for the Louvre. As a sort of “completest” gesture that includes a series of 22 phantoms, it resembles Dali’s (1985)[6] “tarot deck,” which features little if any interesting original work and simply rehashes stuff already done; ditto with Giger’s (1994)[7] tarot deck as well.

Each various photograph of some piece in the Louvre then gets a phantom painted over it and an biographical blurb about this imagined phantom. Whatever blend of fact, fiction, and fantasy Bilal concocts—da Vinci, for instance, turns out to have a hankering after hi male models—none of the narratives accumulate into anything. Each stands quite alone, in stark contrast (for instance) to how Sergio Toppi in his phenomenal and gorgeous (2012)[8] Sharaz-De arranges (or actually composes anew) a sequence of stories that builds and accumulates in meaning. The only two things any of Bilal’s narratives have in common: (1) each ghost attaches to some aspect of the Louvre (sometimes a room or space in the Louvre and not a piece that has wound up there), and (2) most of the time the phantom has a literal artistic link to the piece in question, either being a model in the painting or somehow an artist who contributed to the piece.

In as much as the pieces selected range over a very wide swatch of human history geographically and temporally, Bilal does provide a very internationally diverse selection of ghosts. It suggests the same kind of gesture Wim Wenders aimed for by internationalizing his casts to a vast degree and incorporating multiple languages into his film—an attempt to capture the (literally) cosmopolitan nature of European life. Bilal comes to a necessity of ethnic multiplicity by a less urbane manner, but his work too shows the (often more tense) intersection of large numbers of people from different countries, particularly in The Hunting Party. So perhaps this element tempted him to say yes to the Louvre’s project, painting a sort of “human ark” in a way that points—though I don’t think deliberately or intentionally—at Sokurov’s (2003)[9] Russian Ark.

But whatever the case, Bilal expends very little effort on the art. Perhaps, at some abstract level, he sees the human face or head he appends on top of the Louvre original as a kind of dialogue (with the piece), but just as the specific biographies seem disconnected from one another (however witty at times), very little of any of the phantoms have any captivating aesthetic interest—at least not relative to other work by Bilal.

Ultimately, this looks like he recognized a good opportunity for self-promotion, and he tossed off the minimum required by the project to get it out the door.

One possibly interesting wrinkle, however. To the extent that Bilal starts with photographs of extant pieces in the Louvre, one may say he then defaces them, though “deface” makes for an ironic verb, since he covers over the original partially with the phantom’s face. We might consider this work as a piece of covert (but out in the open) vandalism.

In his brief introduction, Bilal addresses the fact that (simply for reasons of space) some ultra-famous pieces in the Louvre got left out.[10] Of these otherwise unnamed ultra-famous pieces, the Mona Lisa does not get left out. And I have to add, for two of the pieces, Bilal selects architectural elements of the Louvre.

Let me draw some of the strands for this “case” together. Unable to include all of the ultra-famous pieces, Bilal nonetheless “sacrifices” two of his twenty-two narratives to architectural features of the Louvre. And of the ultra-famous pieces left out, the most ultra-famous piece of all does not get left out.

As a plump piece for the Louvre, one might imagine a line item in Bilal’s contract that specifically prohibits him from excluding the Mona Lisa no matter how much he wants to. But, on the other hand, if one were to decide what ultra-famous piece to leave out—as an artistic kind of statement—then the Mona Lisa certainly tops that list.[11] So, the presence of the Mona Lisa in this book seems like a sort of glaring inclusion, and to this one may add Bilal’s enthusiastic expansion of the miasma of homosexuality surrounding da Vinci. Depending upon how up on scholarship the reader, candidly parading da Vinci around as a sodomite might well read to many as a (deliberate and perverse) defacement of one of the loftiest figures of Occidental art history we have.

But we could take this gesture as a kind of key for looking at the whole book generally. One might imagine a certain kind of dudgeon, that Bilal (virtually a rock star in France as an artist) should get asked to participate in a project to promote the Louvre when none of his own work hangs there. Add to this a kind of glass-ceiling effect, since Bilal does not come from France originally—so this becomes as “close” to the Louvre as the gatekeepers will allow this admittedly celebrated barbarian. As such, the slap-dash work—below Bilal’s usual richness and detail (hobbled all the more by the “absurd” constraint, either self-imposed or imposed upon him by the project’s handlers)—again marks a literal defacement of these ”monuments of civilization”. So much so that Bilal declines to included 22 works in the Louvre and spends two of his pieces on architectural features of the Louvre (however attractive or not).

Moreover, in his selection of pieces and ghosts, Bilal goes out of his way to amplify or deface the canon of Europe—amongst the famous names of painters (Delacroix, Dürer, Rembrandt, &c) his ghosts range over countries and entities (and histories) not necessarily well-represented in the Louvre. Here, the slap-dash work (again) shows contempt for, and offers an implicit critic, of a canon that has (1) helped starve any number of artists but almost, much more pointedly (2) provided the “evidence” of Occidental civilization that has travelled the globe and slaughtered people either deemed not aesthetic enough or only as aesthetic as their eroticizing or orientalising gazers deemed them.

Similarly, behind all of these “lofty works of art,” Bilal’s biographies pull the curtain back on the performance, so to speak, and show us the nitty and the gritty, the skirts and the dirt, involved in the lofty production of such art: the exploitation (sexual and financial) of poor models, the tawdry involvements of supposedly great minds, the Nazi sympathies of at least one phantom in the Louvre. Nothing of this sort of scandal ever topples one of the Immortals, at least not with the passage of a century or five. No one thinks of the Vitruvian man as possible porn anymore, &c. And the messiness Bilal lays out in these fictional (or fictionalized) pseudo-biographies doesn’t puncture or demean the loftiness of the pieces, though not because the gesture comprises something other than a kind of defacement.

Still, having said all of this, if the book doesn’t stand as merely a half-assed toss-off because the Louvre pays well, then it runs the immemorial peril of trying to elevate the banal; i.e., the book might aim to make “boring” or “dull” or “non-engaging” into an interesting theme. Always tricky to do, and rarely a success, and even less rarely on purpose with malice aforethought.[12] Little gives one reason to pay attention to Bilal’s contributions here, even in the various decisions as to how he will (or did) photograph the piece that serves as a jumping off for each. And because the phantoms, much like the paintings in the Louvre, have no necessary connection to one another, but just happen to hang next to something on the wall, the “total effect” (both of the museum, the book, and the phantoms) winds up mostly absent.

This, again, illuminates a critique of the Occidental canon as a disparately non-meaningful heap. One visits the museum of Bilal’s book and you come away with a hollow feeling, of having basically wasted time, although you got a chuckle out of a given piece or two. This has next to nothing to do with the inherent aesthetic merit of any given piece (or the affective merit of any give phantom’s biography) and everything to do with the vacuity and emptiness of the gesture of a museum in the first place.

By contrast, whatever conceit a library might make or not make toward some degree of completeness in its collection, it does not especially pretend that one’s primary activity inside of it amounts to wandering and browsing. Even if you go with some vague notion to “check out a book” (though you don’t know which one, this differs fundamentally from a museum, where a picture says a thousand words and each piece (on the wall, behind glass) imposes its presence on you, so to speak, and demands you look at and take account of it.

Thus Bilal’s book similarly points up the hollowness of the museum as a gesture, without necessarily casting aspersions on the content of the pieces (or the quality of writing for the phantoms’ biographies) themselves. The seeming laziness of Bilal’s contribution makes for the sort of necessary gesture in order to openly covertly mock the Louvre (and all museums) as an institution, as it were.

I think one may say that Bilal has included enough markers in his book to warrant this kind of reading. The pretentiousness of the Louvre, the supposed compliment of being invited to participate in promoting it when the museum would never include your work on the walls—or, worse, they will include the pieces Bilal did for this book and so his presence on the walls serves only as an advertisement—the various gestures of defacement, both literal and in accord with the traditions of art history, and very aspects of Bilal’s own autobiography and creative thematics all permit a conclusion that he has flagrantly snubbed the Louvre. In this respect, he appears as the twenty-third phantom of the Louvre, the invisible figure who either creates or stand tangentially related to a piece of art.

Unfortunately, this still leaves the book only more interesting to think about than read, but perhaps the Louvre suffers the same fate. One can get more out of it by thinking about it, rather than going there, so to speak. Again, this says nothing about the specific, often aesthetically profound experience of standing in front of some work of art. Rather, it points to the sum experience of going—the phenomenologically bizarre, inappropriate, and anachronistic experience of going from a three thousand year old bronze helmet to a painting by some anonymous Dutchman, &c.

Bilal also parodies the museum experience in that he provides more text than image. More precisely, each painting begins with a black page and the phantom’s name along with various witty variations on basic birth information; the next page overlays Bilal’s image on whatever original he defaces. And then the next panel presents a smaller version of the original, with its own conventional “vital statistics” (and provenance). Beside this miniature with its pedigree, Bilal provides a whole page of phantom biography, with preliminary sketch version of the phantom on the page.

Over and over and over Bilal repeats this formula, also to the point of too much familiarity and boredom, just as happens in museums. But he has tampered with the proportions, because not only do the vital statistics for the paintings run at least as large as the small-reproduced original, the phantom’s biography totally dominate the page, suggesting the bloatedness of art history scholarship that typically occupies a greater (explanatory) space than the painting itself. As if the original cannot, in fact, stand on its own, but must come with this intense degree of apparatus to keep it propped up, or at least to intimidate the viewer into accepting someone else’s designation that this, friends, comprises an immortal masterpiece.

Not to suggest that all art history scholarship should get thrown out, that no work of Occidental art (included in the Louvre or not) offers little more than dreck, or that viewers can’t have profound aesthetic experiences in museums—I only suggest that Bilal may have broad-stroked a criticism of the pretentious of museums (and the Louvre in general) in its conceits to curate such scholarship or works of art, or provide the opportunity to encounter profound works.

If Bilal’s book “fails,” it does so because the format of the museum as a totality does not do and cannot do what it claims to. But whether Bilal did this deliberately or simply accidentally as a consequence of working in a museum in the first place, like a museum, he still gets paid when people stroll through (his pages).

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Bilal, E. (2014). Phantoms of the Louvre: NBM Publishing, 1–144.

[3] Bilal, E. (2005). La trilogie Nikopol: Casterman

[4] Bilal, E., & Christin, P. (1990). The hunting party: Catalan Communications

[5] Bilal, E. (1998). The dormant beast. Humanoids Publishing.

[6] Pollack, R., & Dalí, S. (1985). Salvador Dali’s tarot: Michael Joseph

[7] Akron, Giger, H., Designer, M., Giger, H., Designer, P., & Giger, H. (1994). Baphomet: Tarot der Unterwelt: Urania-Verlags-AG

[8] Toppi, S (2012). Sharaz-de: tales from the Arabian Nights. Fort Lee, NJ: Archaia

[9] Sokurov, A., Deryabin, A., Meure, J., & Stöter, K. (2003). Russian ark: Artificial Eye.

[10] He specifically excuses his choices by saying he only painted the phantoms that appeared to him. Not all pieces have phantoms, and some of the phantoms of the most famous pieces, he says, turned out very pedestrian bores, not worth painting.

[11] This elision might resemble that moment when two famous artists—I’ve forgotten their names—went to the Louvre to view the empty place where the Mona Lisa had been stolen from.

[12] Robbe-Grillet’s (1957) Jealousy may offer a successful example.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: M. deForge’s (2014)[2] Ant Colony

Imagine the love child of Jim Woodring’s (2011)[3] Congress of the Animals and Anders Nilsen’s (2011)[4] Big Questions, and you will land somewhere in the vicinity of this book. [5] Include the change from mammals (and avians) to insects.

If you surf to the New Yorker’s review of the book, then you will see in the pictures selected what I would call a standard response to deForge’s book. Unlike many minimalist type of texts, deForge occasionally bursts out with very large-scale pieces, especially when the story calls for them; for example, in the massive battle between the red ants and the black, which has the kind of scope of varied detail familiar in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights or even simply in the depiction of the many charred bodies after the magnifying glass burns many to death. Similarly, at the review, you will see the striking (first) image deForge supplies for the ant colony’s queen, who also over time experiences a process of decay equally strikingly drawn.

I say this marks a standard response to the text, because these occasional lapses into grandeur stand out and seem to suggest the work consists of something more than doodling., But doodling often forms a main impression. The “larger” pieces establish deForge’s credibility as a craftsman and this credibility will (or may then) bleed over to suggest an equal scope of grandeur to the book generally. Nonetheless, it also keeps lapsing back to the sub-banal in a way that negates this impression; by sub-banal I mean the impression of something less than an intentional depiction of banality by deForge.

From the review, we may read something of his aesthetic sense:

“I like writing stories where the characters can only see the edges of their world,” says Michael DeForge, a twenty-seven-year-old cartoonist based in Toronto, about his just published first graphic novel, “Ant Colony.” “I want to show characters who don’t have much agency—or who don’t feel they have very much agency over their lives.” DeForge continues,

I want them to feel that forces of nature or society are sweeping them up in things. And I found that ants are a pretty perfect way to wring jokes out of that (¶1–2).

Those who’ve read enough of my blog may already anticipate I will go bat-shit all over again at authors who think we could or should “wring jokes” out of people destroyed (or buffeted) by the impersonal forces of history, &c. In my last book reply, to Stechschulte’s (2014)[6] multiply inept The Amateurs, he resorted to cheap stereotypes about “poor white trash” to “wring jokes” out of human misfortune. deForge at least avoids this obvious trope while still falling prey to the same inexcusable gesture.

First off, I would certainly appreciate it if fewer (white) males decided to take up this nihilistic position of scoffing at the stupidity of the human condition. Importantly, the back of the book suggests that the ants exhibit bigoted attitudes. This seems incorrect—at least, compared to the clear and unambiguous ignorance and stupidity of the “poor white trash” in Stechschulte’s book, the ants here don’t have anything so unambiguously ignorant.

This matters, because apparently the ad-text writer believes that deForge has “targeted” (human) stupidity in his book. This makes for the same kind of starting point as Stechschulte’s book and thus, in the same way, falls prey to the same sort of assumed superiority (either taken up by the author or granted as a possibility to the reader). In Stechschulte’s book, the text permits us to “laugh at the idiots”; deForge’s book similarly positions us, though nowhere near so unambiguously as the book jacket would suggest.

Even so, whatever the thematic mis-deployments in Stechschulte’s book, he does not give us the implicit contradiction deForge does when he writes narratives of people with little agency from the position of a god-author who has all of the agency in generating the text. I would expect that deForge may tell us his process of creation played out in an involuntary way—that he, like his characters—found himself at the mercy of unknown forces—but unfortunately this “excuse” doesn’t wash. Unless you do automatic writings (or something like it), then claims of “helplessness” in the process of artistic creation do not stand up to scrutiny.

Of course, an artist may incorporate aleatoric (chance) elements into her work, may incorporate process of channelling or unconscious gestures, and the like, but to the extent that one reworks this “found” material the more the helplessness as claimed drops away. Similarly, the less that one reworks the material, the less such work warrants the designation “art”.

Saying this, I recall my friend accusing me of resorting too much to absolutes. And of course we may split hairs until the end of time about the creative process and to what extent “unwilled” versus “willed” elements of a work legitimately contribute to a work, and what admixture (if any) suffices to deem a piece an actual piece of art—if we even decide that fussing over the matter matters socially. In this respect, we might remember, while trying to grapple with the complexity of this, that Ginsburg offered his notorious (and often abused) maxim “first thought, best thought” (as a statement that seems to promote calling whatever springs to one’s mind “art”) in a wider context where meditative openness to a (more) enlightened state of mind formed a prerequisite to gaining access to those “first thoughts”; in other words, the “first thought” issued (so the conceit runs) not from the limited selfish human ego but from the higher Self. Whether or not one takes this notion seriously, one certainly can’t accuse Ginsburg of saying “just write down the first thing that pops into your mind and call it Art.”

In this case, one cannot speak of an “involuntary” process. The conceit insists that the higher Self actually wills the “first thought”. Any “helplessness” involved impinges on or devolves only to the limited ego. BY this method, our (small) self “stumbles” across an oracular truth, which arise whole cloth from the beyond, in the manner of billions upon billions of human utterances (artistic or otherwise) over the centuries. Similarly, one often “involuntarily” finds imagery inhabiting one’s imagination, imagery that pops up seemingly out of nowhere, and which we then can only try our best to translate it onto the page, accurately or not.

But, again, precisely this re-working stands as the part quite the opposite of “helpless”. It would take probably thousands of pages of distinctions to try to nail down the exact difference between the sense data that appears to us from the “real world” apart from “imaginative imagery” that occurs to us and “linguistic descriptions” of both types. For now, we can say simply that all of these types of experiences (of “real world” imagery, of imaginative imagery or dreams, and verbal phrases that describe them or exist on their own) present themselves to our consciousness as a piece of data and experience that we then have the opportunity to work with. I look outside and see a green tree; I have no more say over that “fact” than anything else, and if I insist that I “have no choice” but to draw that green tree simply because it presents it to me, then this serves not as a proof of my helpless but rather of my laziness and a sign that I opt out of my responsibility (as an artist, as a human being) at that moment to take responsibility for whatever reworking I do.

In this light, “realism”—which no shortage of critics and authors have called out rightly as simply nothing but a set of conventions—shows itself as a lazy lie frequently resorted to by lazy artists. More precisely, “realism” offers a kind of argument for aesthetic (artistic) veracity, and one that a given current society accepts. For critics of that society, “realism” may serve a protective function. In Defoe’s Moll Flanders, sometimes called the first novel in English, he goes to considerable length to justify depicting the graphic details of his heroine’s former life of prostitution. He does so, wrapping the whole project in at least a stated intention of showing her moral rehabilitation, because “realism” demands he not misrepresent her chequered past. Later authors of the era frequently resorted to the conceit of “found letters” as a way to justify the publication of (fictional) lies in an era when moral vigilance had gotten pitched up to an almost painful degree. Once again, the claim to have to show “the world as it is” (in order to make a moral case of one sort or another in fiction) demanded a claim of “realism”. The veer toward (later) theatrical “naturalism” rather boneheadedly took this concept literally, but even naturalism could never completely drop the fact that art imposes a demand for some variety conventionalism. In other words, even absolute naturalism comes with conventions, no matter if the author tries to ignore them or not. One sees this even in pieces like Warhol’s (1964) Empire and (1963) Sleep, which try to bring conventionalism to an absolute minimum by simply pointing the camera at the event recorded. But even at this super-minimum level, we still have the convention of a camera angle and the duration of a shot, &c. I would add also that where Warhol tremendously wastes our time without evading conventionality (if he had that intention), Cage’s (1952) justly famous 4’33” maximally and covertly leverages the conventionality of music to make a similar point, but much more economically and interestingly.

Of course, this ineradicable presence of “convention” does not mean, of course, that the convention never changes or cannot.

Similarly, if we zero in more on the process of artistic creation as it emerges in theatrical performance, we can ask pertinently whether, at the moment of delivery, to what extent that delivery seems “voluntary” or “involuntary”, seems “rehearsed” or “spontaneous”. I don’t propose to try to answer this here but—with my friend’s accusations of absolutism in the back of my head—I simply point to the fact that we can find lots of places to raise the question. For the literary or graphic artist, the question of “deliberate” or “improvised” arises exactly at the moment of putting the pen to the page.

So I don’t pretend that aesthetic creation occurs in some fantasyland of absolute control bereft of any accident. But this level of creation stands a far cry from the sorts of moments of choice the author does, in fact, have control over. Dostoevsky (just to give one example) famously describes how his characters would “get away from him”. Those who role-play similarly know how characters may often follow unexpected courses of action, such that we feel obligated to respect the integrity of the character by not wilfully making them do something they “wouldn’t do”. (More precisely, we should say that we won’t force them to do something that runs contrary to our present conception of them as a character.)

Certainly, this piece of non-accountability on the part of artists (I’ve resorted to it myself) does not mean we must take it seriously on its face. I also wonder if Shakespeare or Marlowe ever had this problem or if it only starts to appear in a post-Rousseau world (so to speak) after the “”invention of identity” in the sense we like to call modern.

However, any such claim amounts to a claim for representational veracity, i.e., that I simply present the character as it presents itself to me, just as Beckett excuses himself at points when asked to interpret his work. And this, like the claim of “realism” that protects authors from condemnation for presenting certain unsavoury “truths” about the social order in the presence of the Power that enforces that social order, the claim simply to (helplessly) represent the character as it presents itself seems a means to avoid criticism on the part of the author—a more sophisticated version of the “it was a joke” phrase people will resort to to try to get out of being held accountable for saying something shitty.

Whatever the case, authorial “helplessness” about character doesn’t generally have its analogy at the level of plot. Authors may try to excuse character elements of their work (for good reasons or not—Rabelais avoided being burnt at the stake for insisting his characters were satires, not soothsayers), but we much less frequently hear claims, “I can only tell the story as it happened.” We may hear this more often where biographies (or autobiographies) occur—or similar genres like memoirs, fictional or otherwise—but in particular where a work of fiction doesn’t claim to tell a non-fictional tale, then the argument of helplessly having to tell the story this way usually doesn’t come up, and when it does, it doesn’t sound too credible.

So any lack of agency deForge might try to claim—and he seems to want to describe the book as gradually emerging out of no intention initially to write a book—any such claim echoes hollowly. In any case, we may still wonder how he orients himself to his characters with limited agency. Does he sympathize, because he imagines himself in the same boat (as far as the composition of his work goes)? Or does he, like Stechschulte, take an essentially cruel attitude toward what he depicts and actually serves as the (divine) agency that inflicts helplessness and ignorance on his characters—and then parades them around in that condition as if it embodies “the condition of the world”?

When you drive a car, everyone assumes you have a sufficient control of the car to drive it safely. Accidents happen, yes, and determining (in the wake of one) whether one actually had an accident or if someone acted negligently becomes an important part of the investigation. If you don’t have sufficient control to drive it safely, then any avoidance of an accident amounts to sheer luck but most people, knowing that the case, would insist you stop driving—as some do in the face of hopelessly drunk would-be drivers.

This holding in a clear and unambiguous example, I see no reason especially to pretend that we should laud artists who actually lack competence to remain adequately in control of the car of their art. The argument by helplessness (or lack of agency as an artist) simply doesn’t wash. All the more so because an artist stands as uniquely positioned to actually stipulate the facts of the world created, however “bound” by “realism” or not. While everything we do finds itself necessarily constrained by all kinds of factors, the occasion of artistic creation, all else being equal, provides the opportunity for the least constraint, i.e., by definition provides an occasion where one may suspend the “usual” constraints to a virtually maximal degree.

To renege on that opportunity simply denotes laziness, ignorance, or (most sympathetically) inability. Delany (1977)[7] makes a similar point, when he observes that so-called naturalistic fiction actually comprises a sub-genre science fiction, i.e., a parallel universe story where the main difference between there and here appears in the presence of the characters in the book’s “our” world (or, alternatively, the absence of those characters in our real world). To fail to utilize the opportunities science fiction affords—to simply devolve to trivial stories about rockets and robots, as Lem so often points out—represents nothing “natural” in faction but, rather, again, a piece of ignorance, laziness, or inability on the author’s part.

So, when deForge says he likes “writing stories where the characters can only see the edges of their world” or wanting “them to feel that forces of nature or society are sweeping them up in things”—notice that this expressly describes a desire on deForge’s part rather than any “naturalistic” claim that such stories need telling—then what he means, in practice at least, involves wanting to depict characters cruelly lorded over “by reality” (i.e., the author).

Politically, why do we need stories that aspire to normalise disenfranchisement. Putting it this way, it becomes no surprise that an organ of oppression like The New Yorker would review it.

Again, deForge does not claim to depict the human (or ant) condition but simply wants to show characters in mentally and circumstantially hobbled situations. This immediately reminds me of Lem’s (1971)[8] “Non Serviam” (i.e., “I will not serve”), which consists of a series of dialogues by elements within a computer program, who try to work out their existential condition. While boiling down to a blistering refutation of the premises behind Christian theodicy, the point as far as deForge’s book goes concerns how Lem uses a similar situation—of individuals in highly constrained situations of knowledge and agency—to criticise the imposition of that condition upon them. deForge, by contrast, does not just indulge in the creation of the situation, he never once permits his characters to inquire about the justice of it.

So, not only does he put the characters in an untenable situation—a condition of limited knowledge and agency that we all might to one degree or another identify with—he also strips them of their capacity to wonder why this has happened, and then he simply subjects them to a random barrage of experiences—again, without substantially or materially giving any a real space to try to make sense of their experience.

This amounts to laughing at mentally retarded people, and the metaphor of ants only makes the attempt to “wring humor” out of the scenario that much more dismal. Not point, because this gesture very much participates in the general shift that declares all social (political) action pointless and encourages people, more and more, to refer to nothing but themselves and their narrow (self-serving) desires as a criterion for acting. We have, then, the tragedy of the commons in one of its ugliest guises enthusiastically at work here.

And the fact that it reads as a “sign of the times” suggests no credit to deForge, whatever his talent as a draftsman, because to whatever extent he might claim simply to depict things “realistically,” this realism already amounts to a social construction designed generally to oppress, not liberate. deForge does not provide us an example where he has “spoken truth to power” and has to use “realism” to protect himself from censure, which (for example back in Rabelais’ day) might very literally mean burning to death at a stake. No, the “defence of realism” his work offers attempts to make him non-accountable for the narrative choices he made in laying the story out this way.

It means we may expect of him that he will line his pockets from his success and leave everyone else to die, although he may scatter an occasional crumb or two to the ants along the way. It means also we may browse his work and have some temporary wash of affect that satisfies or not but which, like masturbation, leaves us meh and disengaged from any constructive social action. Stechschulte’s failure seems minor, by contrast, not only because he reaches for less but also because of his lesser talent.

Wilson (1984)[9] has pithily defined criminality as simply “misdirected intelligence”. If so, then deForge’s work unfortunately embodies an entertaining but artistically criminal failure.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2]Deforge, M. (2014). Ant Colony. Drawn & Quarterly, 1–209.

[3] Woodring, J. (2011). Congress of the animals. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

[4] Nilsen, A. (2011). Big questions. Montréal, Quebec : Enfield: Drawn & Quarterly ; Publishers Group UK [distributor].

[5] Except that one finds much more explicitly a plot here (as compared generally to Woodring) and far more economically (than in Nilsen’’s unmotivatedly lengthy text). I put this remark in a footnote because people may want to argue that Congress of the Animals has a clear plot and that Nilsen’s unnecessarily lengthy book justifies that length. It matters less than simply to offer a comparison. Whatever one experiences as plot in Woodring’s book, here it seems likely most readers will sense “more” of a plot. And whatever Nilsen attempts to accomplish at his nearly 600 pages, deForge seems to get at with fewer.

[6] Stechschulte, C. (2014). The amateurs. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics Books.

[7] Delany, S. R. (1977). About 5,750 Words. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, 21-37

[8] Lem, S. (1971). Non Serviam,”. S. Lem, A Perfect Vacuum, trans. by M. Kandel (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979)

[9] Wilson, C. (1984). A criminal history of mankind: Granada.

Summary (TLDR Version)

The double consciousness W.E.B. duBois speaks of with respect to Black folk goes typically unacknowledged or simply missed by White folk.

Thus, when Hume said (I paraphrase), “It is uncertain if we have freewill, but it is absolutely certain that we must believe we do,” the double-consciousness (the doubled social consequence of this statement) goes missed. We most often hear the statement in individually empowering terms, to the extent that it establishes a ground for personal moral action, but rarely do we notice how it also serves to lay the groundwork for inescapable moral condemnations of others.

The forces and constraints in society—or culture, as the set of constraints on human behaviour within a society, subject to change by that society—call upon us to act in certain ways, and we either rise to the occasion and perform like Olivier or we get stage-fright and miss our cue. But in the meantime, we “read” those performers on the stage of social life not as the performers that culture has scripted but as free-acting agents (and we do so, generously, in the name of human dignity).

Nevertheless, this disconnect (between performance and agency) especially informs how White folks misread “criminal acts” by Black folks. Themselves made into puppets by the discourse that animates them, White folk condemn the character of Black criminality as a character flaw (rather than the performance of the role demanded of them by culture) and thus fail to indict their own hand in the authoring of the culture that wrote that criminality in the first place.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C. Stechschulte’s (2014)[2] The Amateurs

I have less to say about the context of this book than usual since Stechschulte lazily, ineptly, or too obscurely constructs its narrative. Opening on a Lovecraftianesque “I have seen a horror I hardly dare confess I believe” gesture, the style and content of the book then switches to a couple of amateur hicks, who may not (in fact) actually ever have been butchers, but now believe themselves to be. From time to time, the frame story returns, with no compelling or gotcha sense of connection to the main narrative, and it ends even more obscurely still with a hair-cutting ritual. I leave it to people more acculturated in the right way to offer credible reasons why Stechschulte smashes these two different narratives together.

The main body of the book consists of the gory and inept misadventures of a couple of amnesiacs hayseeds who try to run the butcher’s shop they find themselves in despite having no idea how.[3]

A friend of mine once expressed an interest in depicting the US figure of the yeoman, better known to most as the hick, hillbilly, hayseed, or (most widely these days) poor white trash. In conversation with him about this, I wound up writing likely one of my more outrageous plays (American Gothic Science Fiction), which attempted to cram as many garish “poor white trash” tropes into it while also exploding and exposing audience prejudices against these figures. I would only say that the ease with which we allow ourselves to slip into a kind of grotesque version of a Southern accent[4] whenever we need to signal that someone cuts the stupidest of figures stands already as a sign of almost invisible racism in US culture.

You might question why “racism” and not “classism”. In general, because “white” (as it exists in US Occidental culture at least) does not constitute only an element of “race” or “class”. As numerous waves of immigrants have demonstrated (from Irish to Italian to Jewish) “whiteness” does not rise or fall by skin colour. In Sartre’s (1965)[5] Antisemite and Jew, he reaches the conclusion that a Jew comprises whatever culture declares one to be; so too with white. Or again, as Finley (2010)[6] demonstrates in multiple ways, whether people living in the Chestnut Ridge region of West Virginia were deemed white or some category of non-white depended upon social knowledge of a person’s background and lineage rather than any visible evidence of “white” or “black”.

In this respect, I should mention that these mixed race descendants in West Virginia, many of whom could easily “pass” outside of the context of those who knew their grandparents and great-grandparents, would “read” to most bourgeois people as quintessential poor white trash. So the idea that when we speak of “poor white trash” we in fact speak of “white” in some putative “pure” sense does not hold water. However, one cannot also deny that most people who witness productions representing “poor white trash” ever think that such people have mixed blood in their veins.

Even so, as we see from any number of anthropological texts—e.g., Basso’s (1973)[7] or Spencer and Gillen’s (1904)[8] text—where we get told that the “natives” recite the “nonsense” words to some song they no longer remember the meaning of (but they go on repeating the “magic phrase” nonetheless), we can certainly note how the sorts of associations we have for “poor white trash” (inbred, sexually profligate, uneducated, illiterate, superstitious, bestial, if not sub-human) line up almost perfectly with racist tropes about people of colour, and “slaves” in particular. This suggests that the sorts of pejorative terms arising from White distaste for the “low behaviour” of mixed (i.e., black) people in the earlier United States has gone into cultural usage now without our remembering what those words mean. We just go on repeating the “magical phrases” nonetheless, scoffing at the laughable, scandalous, disgusting traits of “poor white trash” without realizing we reprise an anti-Black (pro-slave mentality) sentiment while doing so.

I’d like to make clear. My objection to Stechschulte’s casual resort to an available cultural bigotry originates less from merely a knee-jerk response to it and more to how uninterestingly he uses it. Stereotypes—all the more so the more familiarly we know them—will often lack narrative interesting simply because they leave too little to the imagination for the reader (or viewer) to work with: just one more stupid hick, swishy queer, ditzy blond, &c.

Stereotypes—like folk tales, which embody the narrative version of what stereotypes embody at the level of character—have proven in deft hands extremely useful for crafting narratives. In Frye’s (1957)[9] Anatomy of Criticism, he asserts that literary originality in fact requires a return to the most conventional (or archetypal) roots of (a culture’s) literature; one may note, for instance, how suggestively a narrative begins to appear if someone proposes a story called “Snow White & the Eight Dwarves”. Maguire’s (1995)[10] Wicked and Stoppard’s (1967)[11] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead represent two very popular examples of this move but even a simple story told from the wolf’s point of view in “Red Riding Hood” would offer similar (stereotypical) narrative grist. From Stechschulte, however, his two bumblers—who bear some resemblance to Uncle Fester and Gomer Pyle[12]—give us nothing to work with, as they get bested by a cow and pig, &c.

So, my objection has at least as much of the aesthetic as the political sitting in it, but because the dominant discourse these days does not recognise very well (if at all) the social aspect of the aesthetic—i.e., that one either “likes” or “dislikes” a book gets taken as a merely personal opinion—one feels more pressed to point to the socio-political aspects of aesthetic work, as simply a way not to sound like we speak “only for ourselves”. However, what we “like” and what we “read” and how we “like” and “read” cannot so tidily get separated from the socio-politically milieu we live in.

Certainly, if Stechschulte’s sales suffer because his story bores people with its stereotypes that points to one aspect of the non-personal implicated in aesthetic work. But the part touching more on social justice issues involves how the book permits readers—at least those inclined to do so—to “laugh at the hayseeds”. Again, a key part of this participates in laughing at “people perceived as niggers” and especially the kind of (white) people whose forebears were so depraved as to intermix with “people perceived as niggers”. That this fact—that abusing “poor white trash” amounts to a racialised gestures—has disappeared into the murk of distance cultural memory in the United States or—in a manner similar to how physical actions in new-borns get habituated into the unconscious and then operate from there without thought—this gesture has become a literal intellectual cultural habit (available to everyone, but obviously most prevalent in middle- and upper-class pholks of any “race”) simply exposes how the “aesthetic” does in fact intersect critically with the “political”.

For me personally, I always hope a book[13] will both (as Horace suggests)[14] delight and instruct me. When it doesn’t, I look for why. Any sense of “offense” on my part certainly came later than the “oh for fuck’s sake” at the banal, boring, trivial, familiar stereotype of bumbling (white trash) hayseeds. Nor must all “bone-heads” bumble; Bill & Ted from Herek’s (1989)[15] and Hewitt’s (1991)[16] films have any number of relatively competent adventures (in part because their authors belie an obvious intelligence, just as Christina Applegate did playing the role of one of the ditziest blondes ever on Married with Children), and maybe it matters in this respect that Bill, Ted, and Kelly all represent (at root) emulable models of good White kids, as opposed to that deliberately “alien” looking scamp playing the banjo on the porch in Boorman’s (1972)[17] Deliverance. Most of all, remembering my friend’s observation for how readily and automatically we culturally permit ourselves to lampoon the “southern Yeoman” (i.e., “poor white trash”), I could not miss as I read this book how Stechschulte (someone who grew up and left rural Pennsylvania for the urban landscape of Baltimore) had leveraged that “automatic joke”. Or that the back of the book advertises it as “funny, often discomfiting”. Rob Clough, a comics critic, suggests that “Stechschulte just has an uncanny knack for merging the humor of awkwardness with bloody, visceral violence” (from here).

I separate (as much as I can) the work from the work’s reception, although frequently and awfully the fans of a work provide the best arguments against a work. Clough gives a serviceable summary of the (incoherent) plot, making various sorts of apologetics for it along the way. By which I mean, he describes certain plot points where other readers would “check out” of the narrative (i.e., give up on it), while not offering much in the way of reasons for why he “held on” (i.e., did not give up). Overall, he notes,

Stechschulte leaves it up to the reader to decide what happened. Were the two butchers also mass murderers who simply snapped one day and then repressed the memory of their butchery? Was the father of one of the butchers involved somehow, as the severed head of one of the butchers suggests? How did that head get decapitated? How did it stay alive? What happened to the two women that caused one of them to actively repress the memories of that day? Are the color breaks in the comic indicative of a psychotic breakdown or a memory flashback? Not knowing these details, while being treated to a book’s worth of crazy weirdness, is what makes this such a compelling read. Stechschulte’s lumpy, grotesque and cartoony art adds to both the creepiness and the laughs, as he creates drawings that are simultaneously funny and unsettling (¶4, from here).

I want to point out that Clough simply assumes that Stechschulte has left it up to the reader. Unless he has spoken to the author, we might also assume that Stechschulte feels he has perfectly clearly, obviously, and thoroughly laid out the story as he intends. On a cynical view of literature, one that has a lot of social cache these days, “common wisdom” advises writers to “keep it vague” because that way more buzz generates around a work as readers argue amongst themselves (in fora and Facebook) to establish “what happened” &c. To the extent that the advice “always leave them wanting more” often gets attributed to that arch-charlatan and promoter P.T. Barnum, we may immediately understand that this criterion for literature hinges on marketing not aesthetic creation. Moreover, no work of literature held up by cultures as worthy of immortality had to deliberately mutilate its sense-making in order to gain the eternal and recurring attention of that culture. One may find mysteries and obscurities in Goethe, Shakespeare, or Vyasa, but they didn’t go out of their way to gratuitously insert obscurity. More importantly, none of them would accept the notion that the reader has the preeminent or sole authority on “deciding what happened”.

Joyce “secretly explained” everything in Ulysses through Stuart, and Faulkner lied unabashedly in interviews about his own works without ever denying that he had an explicit idea about what his books meant. And in fact, in his case, since the very problem of “what history means” always appears in his books as a series of contested, inconsistent versions of history, his own “this is what I think it means today” kinds of answers follow explicitly and exactly from his literary impulses. He might agree that the reader has some authority in deciding “what happened” but only because we all do, and never as the sole authority.

In aesthetic terms, if “Stechschulte leaves it up to the reader to decide what happened,” then this lowers the value of his book but, again, Clough may err in declaring this. So in the same way, we may wonder if Stechschulte actually intends laughter as a “proper” response to the events in his book.

Again, over the years, humans have composed a few narratives. The massive body of works give evidence over and over of different sorts of (literary or aesthetic) gestures toward creating an effective and affective work. Intermixing different emotional registers offers one such, particular (here) the laughing gasp in the face of horror. Bakhtin (1981)[18] speaks of various types of laughter and I find often that people defend this nervous-hyena giggling—the hyena’s notorious laugh actually occurs when the critter feels nervous rather than “amused”—as unproblematic.

Perhaps, but such visceral, non-mediated laughter presupposes an identity of situation, i.e., an identification with the people in a depicted situation. If this kind of laughter will “justify” itself, it seems it must have this identification, otherwise it embodies a “laughing at” not a “laughing with”.

On the one hand, Stechschulte has placed the reader in a position somewhat similar to the two men; like them, we too have no idea “what happened yesterday”.[19] We can do this, despite the frame-feature of the story,[20] mostly because of its brevity but also because a frame explicitly intends to orient us to the event(s) about to occur. However, the reader likely fairly quickly separates from this identification early on, specifically in wondering if, in fact, these two really work as butchers. Arguably, this gets confirmed later, but not before the reader splits away from the identification.

This de-identification matters because it sets up whether we “laugh with” or “laugh at”. If we “other” the butchers, then their hayseed shenanigans no longer remain something we commiserate with, because we might suffer a similar fate, but rather become something to laugh at scornfully, from the superiority of our more intelligent, less “hick” and “inbred” stupidness. &c.

In fact, this seems Stechschulte’s intention. If he intends to not de-humanise the people he depicts (as stereotypes), then he very unwisely chose a conventional presentation of known stereotypes to try to tell that story. This sort of scoffing laughter directed at “poor white trash” (whether at the level of the author’s intention or at the level of the reader’s reception of it) does not at all participate in the sort of regenerative laughter Bakhtin describes. It exhibits a laughter symptomatic of reward-oriented hierarchies, where one finds consolation for one’s own tawdry and decrepit condition of misery within the status quo by belittling someone (perceived as) lesser.

This consolation roots deeply in racism, of course, and in part explains why, no matter how far along Black pholk come within our white supremacist culture, they do not get permitted an actual, solid footing for social status: because reward-oriented hierarchies, putting 99% of its inhabitants in an untenable position, requires anyone not in the 1% to build up their social status and ego[21] by degrading, mocking, or simply negatively comparing those perceived as beneath them. &c.

Whether Stechschulte intends this, Clough’s reading certainly emphasizes it. For laughter to serve as regenerative—or simply not socially baleful—the possibility of the events happening to you must exist. Otherwise, we simply have a self-congratulatory narrative that contrasts the “stupidity” of other people with one’s own knowledgeable and knowing superiority. In this respect, the supposed hilarity of Kafka’s fiction similarly participates, to its discredit.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Stechschulte, C. (2014). The amateurs. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics Books, 1–64.

[3] Even in this portion of the book Stechschulte commits uninteresting point-of-view blunders that mar whatever momentum or whatnot this portion of the narrative aims for, but I have no interest in dwelling on these mistakes, except to note the irony in a book called The Amateurs. Someone should work up some puns about back jobs, &c.

[4] Which Southern accent, one might ask, since (like an “English accent”) not just one exists.

[5] Sartre, J.-P. (1965). Anti-semite and Jew. New York, 97, 102.

[6] Finley, A. J. (2010). Founding Chestnut Ridge: The Origins of Central West Virginia’s Multiracial Community

[7] Basso, E. B. (1973). The Kalapalo indians of central Brazil (Vol. 56): Holt, Rinehart and Winston New York, i–xvii, 1–157.

[8] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from <href=”#v=onepage&q&f=false”>here, pp. i–xxxv, 1–787.

[9] Frye, N. (1957). Anatomy of criticism: four essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[10] Maguire, G. (2011). Wicked: Hachette UK

[11] Stoppard, T. (1967). Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are dead: a play in three acts: Samuel French, Inc.

[12] That Stechschulte names this character “Jim” helps connect even more this character to Gomer Pyle, played by the infamously drawly Jim Nabors.

[13] Any aesthetic work, in fact.

[14] From Horace’s epistles, he puts it (in Latin with an English translation; see here, for instance):

Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae; / aut simul aut iucunda et idonea dicere vitae. / Quidquid praecipies, esto brevis, ut cito dicta / percipant animi dociles teneantque fideles. / omne supervacuum pleno de pectore manat. / ficta voluptatis causa sint proxima veris: / ne quodcumque velit poscat sibi fabula credi, / neu pransae Lamiae vivum puerum extrahat alvo.

Poetry wants to instruct or else to delight; / or, better still, to delight and instruct at once. / As for instruction, make it succinct, so the mind / can quickly seize on what’s being taught and hold it; / every superfluous word spills out of a full mind. / As for delight, in what you invent stay close / to actuality; your fable shouldn’t / feel free to ask your audience to credit / just anything whatsoever, no matter what: / produce no human babies from monsters’ bellies.

[15] Herek, S., Reeves, K., Winter, A., Carlin, G., Matheson, C., & Solomon, E. (2004). Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Momentum Pictures

[16] Hewitt, P., Reeves, K., Winter, A., Sadler, W., Ackland, J., & Carlin, G. (2004). Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey: MGM Home Entertainment

[17] Boorman, J., Voight, J., Reynolds, B., Beatty, N., Cox, R., & Bros, W. (2007). Deliverance: Warner Bros. Pictures. For more on this, see also Bell, D. (2000). Eroticizing the rural. Philip, Richards; Watt, David & Shuttleton, Diane De-Centring Sexualities: Politics and Representations Beyond the Metropolis, 83-101.

[18] Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press.

[19] On this point, it seems to matter a lot for the narrative that the two men never really make any attempt to decipher “what happened yesterday” or (most of all) to ask if they really work as butchers. This makes for a problematic lapse in Stechschulte’s narrative. Either of the characters might easily have asked “Are we really butchers” but I think this doesn’t happen because Stechschulte assumes it as given (that it “is” true) and proceeds accordingly. The fact that women arrive to ask them to provide meat ratifies the men’s assumption (and the narrative’s tacit assumption) that they actually really do work as butchers, but this confirmation comes later than it should in the narrative, so to speak. Whatever justification or reason the men have for accepting their “impression” that they do actually work as butchers, this justification separates them experientially from the reader; the reader has no such access to this “reason”. Thus, even when the women appear, asking to buy meat, a reader need not assume this “proves” they work as butchers but simply represents another “bizarre fact” in the world they find themselves in. If, for instance, they have awakened in a parallel universe, one where people know them as butchers, this does not mean they have actually worked as butchers (in their home universe), &c. I offer this counterfactual not as “what happened” but simply to illustrate that Stechschulte’s tacit assumption about the truth of the men’s avocation does not necessarily get nailed down by his narrative. Thus, to whatever extent the reader and the men start off “in the same boat” (narratively speaking), we rather quickly have a divergence of experience and, instead of identifying with them, we begin spectating over them at a distance. This becomes unavoidably explicit when the point of view shifts away to the two women.

[20] Clough refers to the frame as written by a doctor—“ The book starts with a doctor’s account of two travellers finding a human head that nonetheless was somehow still alive and speaking–a bald, round, mangled head” (¶2, from here)—while the text in this book states unambiguously, “From the diary of Anne M. Nemeth, student, Lyre School for Girls” (1). Clough also refers to colour panels and the picture of the severed head he supplies differs from the image in my text (Stechschulte over-writes mine with words); we seem to have different versions of the book floating around.

[21] I do not mean for these two items as synonymous.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C.D. Tirres’ (2014)[2] The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought [Part 1]

Someone requested I read and reply to this book. And so, since this asks for something more familiarly “formal” than my typical “reply”, the following provides a longer, more point by point reflection of the book. This is part one.

What follows likely only addresses the opening 13 pages of his book (the Introduction). Not all of my commentary will run at such length, but the details included below help to frame Tires’ approach throughout the rest of his book. It contains many of the background assumptions and we will misread his book if we don’t keep these assumptions, presumptions, and premises in mind.

Theory, Practice, Praxis

Tirres, a North American Latino academic scholar[3] teaching at DePaul University, symbolises in his dialogue between “liberationist “ and “pragmatic” thought a “South/North divide” that characterises many of the differences of opinion on the topic ever since Gustavo Gutiérrez—the man that Tirres refers to as “the father of liberation theology” (5)[4]—established the discipline/practice/approach more than forty years ago. Simply for the sake of clarity, one may summarise a large number of the differences of opinion as centred on a dominating concern with “practice” (in the world South) as contrasted with dominating tendency to “theorise” (in the world North).

This, of course, oversimplifies the matter. Since a great deal of South American liberation theology took various cues from Marxist analysis, to reduce it only to a “practice” offers a parody of it; similarly, to characterise “north American” liberation theology as always or only empty intellectualizing without any substantial concern for engagement with the “real world” also parodies the actual state of affairs.

At the same time, parodies generally contain at least grains—if not whole chunks—of truth. When we look at the general circumstance of those composing or working with liberation theology, for instance, in Latin American settings, where priests were often persecuted and sometimes murdered by the State for the work the priests were doing, we see a very different picture from liberation theologians in ivory towers in the world North. For those in the trenches of warfare or the oppressive ravages of the State, theological hair-splitting becomes not only dangerously irrelevant but also morally suspect, because people shall go on dying around you while you twaddle on trying to work out which hair to split.

Of course, an immediate position one may take on this “theory” or “practice” split denies the “or” in the first place, and insists that theory and practice remain equally necessary. However, this ultimately only begs the question. If we need both, then how much of each do we need? 50/50? 60/40? 40/60?[5] Whatever the answer to this, the opposition suggested in Tirres’ title between “liberationist” and “pragmatic” thought moves in the murky space of this distinction.

Tirres frames and gives us a taste of an answering with the two quotations that open the book: the first declares the “announcement of the demise of liberation theology [as] both parochial and questionable” (1) and insists that “liberation theology needs to be and has been restated for the new situation on a more global level” (1); the second quotation cites a formula by Cornel West that identifies prophetic pragmatism as itself an orientation capable of overcoming the South/North, liberationist/pragmatic divide that Tirres addresses throughout his book.

I want to add: many (academic) disciplines and (revolutionary) movements have confronted this problem. One sometimes hears of “praxis” as a melding of theory and practice. What Arendt noted in another context—that Western philosophy often focuses too much on the life of the mind to the detriment of everyday life—reprises once again the theory versus practice debate; and she specifically promoted the notion of praxis as its antidote. Similarly, commentators have deemed Marxism in general as a philosophy of praxis. The prophetic pragmatism West avows above would similarly constitute a praxis in this sense.

I say all of this (1) not to oversimplify the matter but (2) not to lose sight of the fact that these distinctions do, in fact, matter. In (revolutionary) movements, sometimes those with too much theory show themselves as cowards, i.e., unwilling to engage in everyday life or confrontations on the barricade. Similarly, one sees moments in history when people elected to pursue paths of resistance woefully stupid or misinformed or, worse, so wrongly informed that the outcome achieved the opposite of that intended: a result that they would have avoided had they had a more lucid or illuminating grasp of theory. So, if sometimes theoreticians become cowards (and people die as a result), at other times activists act stupidly (and people die as a result).

So these issues don’t at all become “merely academic” all the time and everywhere. Sometimes they become matters of life and death. So that if there does seem some sense in distinguishing “theory” and “practice” (not only as concepts we can use to try to analyse the lived experience of human beings as well as our own but also as moral yard sticks for identifying human behaviour in times of crisis or peace), then they remind us not simply to move back and forth between but to know when we must. They can help us to understand when we face a “moment of theory”—a moment when something requires an analysis of a situation or a reflection on an experience—as opposed to a “moment of practice”, when something requires an intervention into a situation or the enacting of an experience.

For people in affluent communities, as the world North generally reflects, we far less frequently find ourselves confronted by overt, life-threatening moments of crisis—and so the liberation theology of the north may “wallow” in the life of the mind or the contemplative life. But for those in nations torn apart by war or under the heel of totalitarian oppression, such moments of crisis come much more frequently. Thus, what a South American liberation theologian understands as “pragmatic” when standing at gunpoint before national “security forces” differs markedly and alarmingly from what a liberation theologian in the North would understand as “pragmatic” in a daily-life sort of way.

From this, it must already have become clear that the apparently tidy category (in the title) that distinguishes “liberationist” and “pragmatic” thought does not hold up so well when put to work. I will return to this.

Liberation Theology “Defined”

Liberation theologies have for the last forty years animated much thought amongst those deemed marginalized populations (the poor, the world South, women, queers, people of colour). I say “marginalized populations” in order not to say “subaltern populations” since, contrary to expectations, these “subalterns”[6] have spoken, while not necessarily heard or hear correctly.

Given this wide range of applications, any attempt to “define” liberation theology will run into problems. But at least with respect to Tirres’ book, we may get a sense of what he intends to mean by it (and, presumably, later chapters will expand further upon this as necessary).

He notes that from liberation theology’s “earliest days, critics have charged that liberation theologies reduce faith to politics and, in doing so, fall short of an encompassing, or “integral,” sense of liberation” (3). In a word, liberation theologies (note the plural) were too worldly; they gave short shrift to the spiritual. Hence, “Whereas, on the one hand, the Vatican clearly reaffirms liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor, it takes issue with liberation theology’s ‘temptation to reduce the gospel to an earthly gospel,’ on the other” (3).

Two things need mentioning here. Along with the “debate about ideas” that we may see in the above, these also often have an extremely strong political element. Where the Vatican desired to oppose an emerging Marxist resistance, it could criticise liberation theology on the grounds that it seemed to worldly or earthly. Conversely, of course, Marxists could, as a matter of strategy, leverage the existing faith of their Latin American country folk—under the theologically unassailable category of “helping the poor”—and thus move toward political (not liberatory) power.

To sort out whether, at any given moment, the Vatican had played politics first and theology second, or whether a liberation theologian plays spirit first or politics, can only get sorted out by specifically examining that historical moment, if we even can do so any more. I will generally state: when the Vatican in these matters appears to put spirit first, this disingenuously attempts to mask the power-play at work. For them, theology is power and expressly for the purpose of maintaining the present status quo of power. By contrast, if disavowals of political aspirations might sound disingenuous from liberation theologians, for them theology is resistance and expressly for the purposes of changing the present status quo.

North American liberation theologian may occupy a kind of third position in this opposition. If the South American liberation theologian stands at root as a revolutionary seeking to change the current social order (for the benefit of the most oppressed), and the Vatican, in its reaffirmation of “liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor” stands at root as a reactionary against too much (political) change in the final analysis, then the North American liberation theologian may take up a kind of watered-down version: he (or she) may serve as an apologist for the Vatican (and power) or as an advocate for a change of power.

But she or he does so from a doubly protected but also doubly disadvantaged position. On the one hand, they (generally) have the luxury of not dying in a Latin American dictators torture chamber while facing only the threat of a loss of prestige (or perhaps ecclesiastical stripping) if they “go too far” in academic circles. Similarly, the kind of basic, social irrelevancy that Eagleton (1984)[7] noted for academic literary critics applies here as well; they can say what they want, because what they say doesn’t matter. And distance from the controlling Authority (the Vatican) makes the force of that Authority less threatening. So long as they don’t lose tenure, in the final analysis, who cares? Moreover, the dynamics of independence or Vatican control exerted over academic (North American) liberation theologians must, again, vary by circumstance.

This means, in consequence, that a central battle fought by North American liberation theologians will line up more in terms of securing political influence within the academy, whatever the more wide-spread (actually political) influence generated in terms of public policy. It means that liberation theology will tend to become a means to an end (the academician’s career) and not an end in itself (the articulation of a liberation theology itself).

I mentioned before that a Vatican emphasis on spirit (over politics) must necessarily read as disingenuous, if not actively deceptive, and that the South American liberation theologian’s political disavowals might also seem disingenuous—a “threat” usually offset by the blunt an frank denial by the theologian that the world of engagement itself cannot help being political and that not all politics arise as brutally self-serving. One may politick for others. Similarly, a North American academic will often sound disingenuous in the claim that his or her work has no relation to career aspirations, and he or she might try to draw an analogy with the (sincere) example of their South American counterpart, who politicks for others.

This should not deceive us. An assistant professor has relative less power than the administration overseeing him or her, but the context of the academic institution—as a bulwark of cultural power in the United States—makes that “relative powerlessness” a red herring. When we look at the risks and the threats that many south American liberation theologians faced, the analogy with any “risk” or “threat” in the north American context collapses. Moreover, whatever “sincere” gesture an academic’s work offers, if it issues only in the form of productions with egregiously limited social reach, then we cannot take seriously any claim that such work happens “for others”—unless, by others, we mean the narrow, small, limited coterie of specialists who might stumble across the work. We may compare this kind of claimed work “for others” to the high public visibility of Terry Eagleton or (even more so) Raymond Williams as necessarily embodying a requisite “public self” without which work “for others” becomes the sort of sterile and harmless stuff Eagleton identifies.

So, between the in a sense very real politics of Vatican versus south American liberation theologian—however the lines of force play out in those circumstances—we must contrast the play-politics generally at work in academic publication. I do not mean that academic careers do not “live and die” by such politics—but in the confrontation between the Vatican and the world South, people, not careers, die.

All of this does not say this particular (academic) work lacks a convincing ethical commitment to the world. It does mean that in taking up the contrast between “liberationist” and “pragmatic” thought—whatever that proves to be—the engagement Tirres makes with it arises in an academic context where (1) little stands at risk for him, and (2) he already participates in the world-dominating power of the United States, whose foreign policy (terribly and ironically) played a paramount role in creating the conditions in South America that made liberation theology “necessary”. As such, we may suspect in advance that any articulation of “prophetic pragmatism” (praxis) offered by Tirres serves less the end of liberation theology itself and rather merely “solves a problem” that currently exists due to the on-going (specifically academic) hair-splitting about “theory” and “practice”.

Tirres employs another categorical distinction to describe. He contrasts “the ethical and political dimension of faith practice” heavily emphasised by Latin American liberation theologians with the emphasis on “aesthetic and cultural production (lo cotidiano)” that US scholars have often taken up. By looking at this, US scholars “have explored the potential life-giving aspects of Latino popular religion, a topic that several early Latin American theologians dismissed” (6).[8] He then writes (I will unpack some of it below):

On the other hand, however, in turning to cultural and aesthetic categories, US Latino/a theologians may often risk losing ties with the ethical and political dimension of faith practice. I find problematic, for instance, the suggestion by some US Latino/a theologians that the Latin American “preferential option for the poor” is better understood in the North American context as the “preferential option for culture.” This distinction strikes me as entirely too stark.6 To be clear, I see the value and originality of US Latino/a theologians using culture and aesthetic practices as basic staring points for reflection. However, if this reflection does not bring into focus some form of social misery—whether actual, implied, or remembered—then I do believe that it is fair to ask whether US Latino/a theology is indeed a liberation theology.7 I agree, in part, with critics like Manuel Mejido and Ivan Petrella, who have argued that US Latino/a theology may at times fall back on questions of cultural identity without sufficiently promoting a political program. At the same time, however, I do not believe that this is an either/or proposition, wherein the only available option is either to focus on aesthetics and culture or to promote a concrete blueprint for political change. The more interesting and challenging question, I believe, is how a turn to aesthetics and culture, when done carefully and critically, may re-inform and reinvigorate both the theory and practice of faith-in-action (7).

6 González raises a similar point in Afro-Cuban Theology, 144-45. [footnote in original][9]

7 Writing early in his career, Cornel West makes a comparable observation as regards Black theology. He argues that if the social vision of black theologians is to equate liberation with middle-class status, black theologians “should drop the meretricious and flamboyant term ‘liberation’ and adopt the more accurate and sober word ‘inclusion.’” West, “Black Theology,” 413. [footnote in original] [10]

We can see in this extended quotation most of the tendencies and tensions I have already identified. When he says he finds “entirely too stark” the US Latino/a theologian substitution of a “preferential option for culture” in place of the original “preferential option for the poor” I think he not only understates the matter by an order of magnitude but also that he betrays a class bias by far, far too politely rejecting this substitution. For one, even in our “North American context,” we have millions of poor in need of liberation and the substitute of an emphasis on anything else, much less “culture”, seems nothing less than a denial of the necessity of addressing poverty. Whereas liberation theology in South America had to “step down” to serve the poor, in our North American context it would (at the very best) prefer to lift the poor up to “culture”—no doubt with the help of the “potentially life-giving aspects of Latino popular religion”. I find it hard to read even a phrase like “far too stark” as anywhere near stark enough for what lies at the back of this substitution from “poor” to “culture”.

This heading seems an expression of class solidarity—he will not condemn in the appropriate terms what I would call an of betrayal by his academic peers.[11] At the very best, we may imagine him grinding his teeth in disgust. His next sentence acknowledges in principle their academic efforts, but then he says, “However, if this reflection does not bring into focus some form of social misery—whether actual, implied, or remembered—then I do believe that it is fair to ask whether US Latino/a theology is indeed a liberation theology” (7), and he cites Cornel west’s monumental authority (in a footnote) to back this claim up.

This marks a very strong rebuff to his fellow academics. However, it does not yet distinguish whether he seriously means this challenge or if he merely seeks to clear a certain amount of intellectual space so he can present his own argument. The following more suggests the latter:

At the same time, however, I do not believe that this is an either/or proposition, wherein the only available option is either to focus on aesthetics and culture or to promote a concrete blueprint for political change (7).

In this rejection of an “either/or proposition,” we should remember the “either/or” itself only exists in this context (Tirres’ book in particular) because academics accept it as premise and use it to argue about the discipline they practice. As I noted before, over and over one hears someone saying, “No, it’s not X or Y. It’s a blend of both”; “life isn’t black or white; it’s shades of grey”.

False. I see no shades of grey about the position “people of colour are inferior”. Or the notion “homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed marry” and so forth.

As curious human creatures, we resort frequently to either/or contrasts an then, just because somebody proposed, we start acting like we have no alternative to them and that they actually suffice explanatorily. “Nature versus nurture” offers a fine case of this. People have literally had their sex organs removed because of arguments that depend on “nature or nurture”. And because nearly every at least mildly thoughtful person recognizes that both ends of a proposed spectrum never make sense by themselves—i.e., human beings consist only of nature (nurture plays no role); or humans emerge only through nurture (nature plays no role at all)—then it starts to seem very reasonable, common sense even, to claim some middle ground, i.e., “it’s not either/or but a mix of both” (nature AND nurture, or in Tirres’ case, ethical and political aspects AND aesthetic and cultural aspects). He abbreviates these two categories, as we see in the title, aesthetics and ethics.

But if I have a bunch of rotted meat in my left hand and a bunch of diseased vegetables in my right rand, then claiming “it’s not either/or” and smashing the two together into some kind of “shade of grey” will not yield a tasty treat, but only a disgusting mess, just as Herrnstein & Murray’s 60/40 nature/nurture split in their book offers a disgusting mess, not a palatable, much less tenable, position.

I do not mean to suggest that Tirres merely pays the kind of lip service to and and/also like Herrnstein and Murray di. One of his book’s two premises insists that “critiques of liberation theology’s reduction of faith to politics have been largely misguided, since these critiques have not fully grapple with some of liberation theology’s core background assumptions” (4). The second premise:

is that liberation thinkers can still do a better job of articulating what they mean by integral liberation. I propose to address this question not by returning to the familiar an somewhat outworn categories [dichotomy] of faith and politics, but rather, by looking at the question of integral liberation through the categories of the ethical and the aesthetic (5–6).

This substitution of “faith and politics” with “ethics and aesthetics” may seem a facile substitution but behind it Tirres insists that one may approach the latter categories “as inherent and common qualities of experience, rather than rigid or separable domains of human experience [i.e., faith and politics]” (6). We’ll wait to see if this this proves the case or not. One may have some trepidation for the project in advance, however, since a very great portion of the book devotes itself to the side project of reconstructing John Dewey’s philosophy in order to make it into a tool for arguing for what Tirres call integral liberation.

One may wonder, in all sincerity, just how necessary such a reconstruction would be. The South American liberation theologians seem to have fared just fine without this largely academic side project that bulks so largely in Tirres’ book. Moreover, it hardly seems likely that tires would suggest if South American liberation theologian did not take up this (non-Hispanic) “reconstructed” philosophy that they could not achieve anything in their respective cultures. At the outset here, it becomes too easy to imagine this book as a properly dressed up intellectual exercise serving, at most, simply to solve a narrow (philosophical) problem that has no bearing on daily life—all the while citing daily life as essential, of course. More charitably, the book may offer an (unnecessarily hobbled or limited) project in that it seeks to arrive at an impossible conclusion (an actual integral liberation that does not marginalize the world South): impossible because, in attempting to building something not polluted by the Master’s sins, Tirres has had to use the Master’s tools to do so.

Endnotes

 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Tirres, C. D. (2014). The Aesthetics and Ethics of Faith: A Dialogue Between Liberationist and Pragmatic Thought. Oxford University Press, i–xi, 1–223.

[3] His pedigree includes Princeton University, Harvard Divinity School, and indebtedness to, if not patronage by, Cornel West.

[4] I dislike greatly such designations, since they explicitly elide who the mother in question is, both metaphorically and literally (in the form of women who made it possible for Gutiérrez to arrive at the point of articulating liberation theology).

[5] This may seem itself a silly hair to split, but one may see a particularly laughable and awful example of it in Herrnstein & Murray’s (1995)* The Bell Curve, where after much very dubious blather about nature versus nurture they finally declare, quite brightly and confidently, that nature/nurture splits 60/40. Since Herrnstein & Murray plump for biological determinism, if not racist eugenics outright, this conclusion comes as no surprise, but it serves also as an (unconvincing) justification for their genetic determinism in the first place, since “nature” plays a more dominant role than “nurture”.

* Herrnstein, R. J., & Murray, C. (2010). Bell curve: Intelligence and class structure in American life: Simon and Schuster

[6] Subaltern studies most frequently (or popularly) take as their starting point Spivak’s (1988) seminal “Can The Subaltern Speak?” More precisely, “The term ‘subaltern’ … is an allusion to the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937). It refers to any person or group of inferior rank and station, whether because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion” (from here).

The [Subaltern Studies Group] arose in the 1980s, influenced by the scholarship of Eric Stokes and Ranajit Guha, to attempt to formulate a new narrative of the history of India and South Asia. This narrative strategy most clearly inspired by the writings of Gramsci was explicated in the writings of their “mentor” Ranajit Guha, most clearly in his “manifesto” in Subaltern Studies I and also in his classic monograph The Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency. Although they are, in a sense, on the left, they are very critical of the traditional Marxist narrative of Indian history, in which semi-feudal India was colonized by the British, became politicized, and earned its independence. In particular, they are critical of the focus of this narrative on the political consciousness of elites, who in turn inspire the masses to resistance and rebellion against the British.

Instead, they focus on non-elites — subalterns — as agents of political and social change. They have had a particular interest in the discourses and rhetoric of emerging political and social movements, as against only highly visible actions like demonstrations and uprisings (from here).

Tirres refers to the subaltern in his own work.

[7] Eagleton, T. (1984). The function of criticism: from “the spectator” to post-structuralism: London: Verso.

[8] I find this claim rather thorny. Tirres would do well to explain (1) the rationale such theologians had for dismissing this factor, an (2) for US scholars to take upon themselves the conceit of declaring upon the “potential life-giving aspects of Latino popular religion” (6) reeks already of dubious anthropology. People from the “First World” have a long and bad habit of “discovering” the “life-giving” customs of those of the “Third World”. But Tirres gives us nowhere near enough documentation here to draw any conclusions. Nonetheless, that merely “potential” life-giving aspects were “discovered” seems to make this claim (on behalf of US scholars) even more hollow. Meanwhile, no doubt any “popular religion” that served to politically neutralize and placate a local population would very likely get dismissed by (Marxist) liberation theologians as positively a hindrance. Since such a theologian stood on the ground where these cultural forces played out, that US scholars could claim to more correctly read what locals “need” seems patronizing at best, and reactionary at least. Again, Tires does not provide enough background here to explain the justification for his claim.

[9] González, M. (2006). Afro-Cuban theology: religion, race, culture, and identity. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

[10] West, C. (1979). Black theology and Marxist Thought. In JH Cone and G. Wilmore (eds.) Black theology: a documentary history, vol. 1, 1966–1979, pp. 409–24. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

[11] I do not imagine for a moment that those who would substitute “culture” in place of “the poor” do not themselves offer some variety of justification for this, but it would take far more than some facile lip service from an academic to present a convincing justification for this “in a North American context”. The poor stand erased enough from history already; well-off and sheltered academics thousands of miles away should excuse themselves from ever repeating that gesture.

Summary (TLDR Version)

Evidence demonstrates that “mass imprisonment must end. It endangers human dignity. It is a violation of human rights and international law. It is unconstitutional. It does not protect public safety [but exposes it to greater danger]” (172, emphasis added).

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: J. Simon’s (2014)[2] Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America

Mass incarceration, at least for now, is dead this author declares. By this, he means that the Supreme Court has declared the design principle of deliberate overcrowding (in the California prison system) with a systematic lack of constitutionally minimal medical care (and mental health care) cannot continue.

This does not mean that the total number of inmates must come down—they could be outsourced to Mexico, diverted to home monitoring, or county facilities (criminal or for chemical dependency, &c)—but it does mean that the principle of deliberately callous warehousing (in overcrowded conditions) constitutes an Eighth Amendment violation.

Simon has worked on this issue a long time as a policy analyst, and his book remains morally cantered, very adroitly handling masses of facts, and even (in places) offering theoretical perspectives as part of his analysis of the matter. To give an adequate summary of the whole thing, I feel I should have taken notes, but I didn’t. Take it as simply a strong recommendation to read it on my part.

A main outcome from the book for me hinges on the hopefulness it inspires and the victory it represents. Incarcerated people form one of the most vulnerable classes of people (in any State), and to have their voiceless voice heard and upheld (at very long last) even at the level of the Supreme Court shows that sometimes, even in something as overwhelmingly enormous as the carceral system in the United States, the bad guys don’t get to win, no matter how much money they have.

The Supreme Court decision hinged on the outcome of three previous suits. The first protested the cruel and unusual punishment of radical isolation (in so-called supermax prisons)—a lawsuit that, if memory serves, did not prevail on that point per se even as the judges found that supermax containment for mentally ill prisoners did constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The second widened the net and called into question the systematic lack of appropriate medical care and medical care facilities for inmates. In this case, the judge found conditions so egregious in California that he established a third-party receivership to oversee implementation of a constitutionally adequate medical care system. California proved so incapable of meeting this order that another suit came forward, but this happened after the federal Prison Litigation Reform of 1996, signed by the cryptoconservative Clinton.

That legislation, which aimed at essentially declaring all prisoner lawsuits frivolous, set a very high bar for whether or not prisoner complaints could even get filed. As a result, when the next California prison lawsuit came forward, it had to clear the hurdle of this Reform, which had the unintended consequence of necessarily redirecting the courts attention from the specific problematic aspects the prison system for individuals and instead put the focus on the actual structural characteristics of the prison system itself. Specifically, the plaintiffs sought a reduction in the prison population and so decades of prison practice designed to maximize warehousing while providing a minimum of care got thrown into sharp relief.

An example of this designed overcrowding: prisons were built with sewage systems at double their (theoretically) expected capacity. As the judgment wrote:

Thus, although we agree with Dr. Thomas that a custody-dominated culture is a barrier to delivering constitutionally adequate care, we also agree with Dr. Bear that “[if]f you try to change the culture, you can’t. You can’t change the culture until you reduce the population and can make the institution safe.” … Consequently, it is crowding and not culture that is the primary cause of the unconstitutional system of health care delivery in California’s prisons.

Simon goes on to note:

The state of California had planned its prisons to be overcrowded, designing infrastructure for water and sewage to operate at 190 percent of capacity while providing for medical and mental health care not even at a normal occupancy level. Under mass incarceration, overcrowding has become a normal feature of imprisonment nationwide; more than half of the states had prison populations well in excess of design capacity in 2010. Although none has created a humanitarian crisis as large and shocking as California, the threat of torturelike conditions for prisoners with chronic illness is all too real in most states. This system and its resulting damages must be recognized for what it was (and perhaps still is): the greatest domestic human rights violation committed by a state government outside the South under slavery and segregation (122).

In the end, a three-judge panel declared that California had to reduce its prison population by some 46,000 inmates, now. California appealed, and the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s order.

In quietly affirming the lower court’s evidence-based assessment that prison was not a necessary or sufficient condition of public safety, the Brown majority broke with the posture of extreme deference toward imprisonment choices and unleashed a potential sea change in penal policy (152–3).

As Justice Kennedy put it:

Expert witnesses produced statistical evidence that prison populations had been lowered without adversely affecting public safety in a number of jurisdictions, including certain counties in California, as well as Wisconsin, Illinois, Texas, Colorado, Montana, Michigan, Florida, and Canada … Washington’s former secretary of corrections testified that his State had implemented population reduction methods, including parole reform and expansion of good time credits, without any “deleterious effect on crime.” … In light of this evidence, the three-judge court concluded that any negative impact on public safety would be “substantially offset, and perhaps entirely eliminated, by the public safety benefits” of a reduction in overcrowding (153).

Don’t miss that: mass incarceration makes the public less safe.

Simon’s last chapter, “The New Common Sense” breaks down in detail the manifold ways that the “tough on crime” rhetoric that played a major role in establishing mass incarceration has started to give way to alternatives. I’d like to simply retype the whole chapter, but in lieu of that, the headers from the index paint a good general picture of what this new consensus consists of: compassionate parole laws; criminological research about criminal risk-decline; declining crime rates; human rights law and dignity as a constitutional value; mechanisms to encourage good behaviour in prison; moves away from megaprisons and supermax; new approaches to health care/mental health care; new approaches to serious felony offenders; new treatment of people with serious mental illness; nonviolent nonserious crimes and gradations of punishment; optimism about crime prevention; optimism about those released from prison; principle of parsimony in the use of prison; revival of rehabilitative models; and shorter/rescaled sentences (205).

One of the roots in the Supreme Court decision (if not also behind many of the changes noted above) involve the proclamation in it that “dignity animates the Eighth Amendment” (165), i.e., the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. One does not engage in cruel and unusual punishment because it stands contrary to human dignity.

Dignity has in recent decades become the conceptual engine of an emerging body of human rights law that in some regions, particularly Europe, has become a major influence on punishment and prisons. The United States, for historical reasons, had seemed largely indifferent to dignity, viewing it as adding little to existing constitutional values (165).

The Supreme Court’s declaration that “dignity animates the Eighth Amendment” then “is the most striking example thus far, and Brown’s notion of dignity is particularly salient to punishment because it arises in a case that essentially placed mass incarceration on trial” (165).

Like Noah’s children, we stand just after the high-water mark of an epic flood of imprisonment, a flood that drowned whole communities and harmed and disabled millions over the course of decades. As the waters recede, those with power will quickly define the wreckage left behind in society as beyond the scope of reasonable reform. Already the safe line for politicians appears to be in favour of “evidence-based alternatives” [to incarceration] meant to save money will keeping crime low. While surely this is better than reckless imprisonment, it does little to reduce the senseless fear of crime or reduce the stigma heaped on the formerly incarcerated. Mass imprisonment must end. It endangers human dignity. It is a violation of human rights and international law. It is unconstitutional. It does not protect public safety [but exposes it to greater danger]. The human dignity of prisoners, exposed by the shocking and degrading conditions in California’s prisons, provides our best guide going forward as we reimagine criminal justice institutions that can protect safety, provide justice for victims, and respect the decency of a civilized society (171–2).

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Simon, J. (2014). Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America: The New Press, pp. i–ix, 1–209.

Summary (TLDR Version)

The perils of collections (of stories), not just in Duarte’s book, but music as well. As I say at the end of this—no apologies for giving it away!—thank you Gustavo Duarte for wasting my time with your book; I have found a way to turn that time spent into a more fruitful consideration of genre, divided narrative, the production of literary and musical compilations, and the opportunities they afford for saying more. This itself stands to help artists (myself or others) to aspire to greater things.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Gustavo Duarte’s (2014)[2] Monster & Other Stories

For some reason, it seems you may already find the entire (87-page) book <href=”#v=onepage&q=Gustavo%20Duarte%20Monsters%20and%20other%20stories&f=false”>here. That way, you may decide for yourself if I illiterately read graphic novels or not.

English usage gives several senses for “nonplussed”, usually pointing to something like “confused” or “perplexed”. In its more fully etymological origin, we see that, but how it points also to “speechless” (i.e., left speechless), specifically when there remains nothing left to say:

nonplus (v.) “to bring to a nonplus, to perplex,” 1590s, from the noun (1580s), properly “state where ‘nothing more’ can be done or said,” from Latin non plus “no more, no further” (see plus). Related: Nonplussed (from here).

I feel this way about Duarte’s book, which (it would seem) compiles three pieces of his (earlier) work. I won’t fault the book for making less sense as a compilation; the pieces collected here clearly have no apparent intention by sitting proximate to one another. Nor do they amplify one another in any particular way.

Again, I have no pointed objection to this. The major “aesthetic” that seems generally to govern collections (of short stories in particular) involve some measure of (perceived) “quality”. For “new” authors, they may attempt to get as much of their “best work” together as they can. For retrospectives of established authors, the economics of market reach and popularity seem to very often govern what stories appear in a collection, often annoyingly; trying, for instance, to find a complete collection of Chekhov’s stories (or Flannery O’Connor’s), to name only two authors, often involves running into several of the same stories over and over in different compilations. In still other cases, like Stephen King’s (1983)[3] Different Seasons, he simply piles together works that resulted (as he describes it) from leftover authorial inspiration following the completion of other novels.

Of course, this economic or authorial desire simply to pack works into a volume doesn’t mean you have to ignore the opportunity to create a deliberate sequence out of them.[4] Joyce’s (1914)[5] Dubliners, although stand-alone short stories (and one encounters “Araby” all over the place), nevertheless more resembles a “novel of separate narratives” that reads both as an intentional sequence (i.e., like a novel) and as a series of sometimes self-referential short stories. Faulkner’s (1942)[6] Go Down, Moses, while “merely collecting” previous material nonetheless still very deliberately and intentionally places the texts in a mutually informing sequence. And, more recently, at least two collections by Ellen Gilchrist, her (1981)[7] In The Land of Dreamy Dreams and (1984)[8] Victory over Japan take a similar, mosaic-like approach, but up the ante of the gesture one step further by creating “sub-collections” within those books that nevertheless tenuously and tantalizingly refer (or seem to refer) to one another. My own (1988) Endnotes takes this strategy as well.

Successes presuppose non-successes as well. William Faulkner’s (1939)[9] If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (originally published under the title The Wild Palms) interlards two narratives in a way clearly intended to make a coherent sequence out of two juxtaposed narration. More specifically, he combines what seem two novellas or very long short stories (“The Wild Palms” and “The Old Man”), and attempts to make a novel of this. Dobbs (2001)[10] assures us:

Overshadowed by his four masterpieces of the late 1920s and 1930s (The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!), Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (first published as The Wild Palms in 1939) has never garnered the sustained critical attention bestowed upon these Depression-era heavyweights. However, the novel has recently begun to attract scholars, as if we’d caught up with Faulkner at last. One of the features of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem that deserves a closer look is its odd double narrative, in which Faulkner crystallizes the central themes of his earlier major works and raises the stakes of his representations of an anguished South. As in the earlier novels, modernist preoccupations are central: the slippery relationships among memory, history, and myth; the agonizing yet aesthetically energizing task of constructing a narrative of history and self in a world where objectivity is clearly impossible and the grounds of subjectivity are always in question; and the problem, given cultural and psychological anxieties about race, gender, and sexuality, of articulating an embodied identity. Alongside other modernist writers, Faulkner was grappling with these philosophical, psychological, sociopolitical, and aesthetic issues, as well as with a growing sense of the underlying radical flux of experience itself. Throughout his work, this terrifying yet fascinating flux is represented in gendered terms—as an excessive fluidity associated with the feminine. In If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, in particular, Faulkner explores his culture’s fear of radical fluidity in ways that connect women’s bodies (as powerful sites of origin, seduction, and contamination) to both a radically feminized landscape and a dangerously volatile free-market economy. I will argue that every aspect of early-twentieth-century American culture some might wish to consider stable—gender, geography, the logic of capitalism—proves, in If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, to be a source of profound chaos (811).

My point, however, doesn’t hinge on the general quality of Faulkner’s writing, which remains excellent of course,[11] or problematic in terms of the thematics Dobbs identifies, but simply on whether or not he succeeds at pulling off its structural conceit, which puts claims to weld these two separate narratives together in a necessary or convincing way. And just to avoid scepticism, I promise you that the most banal and conventional reading of this book accepts[12] that the book intends the narratives should read as intertwined:

Each story is five chapters long and they offer a significant interplay between narrative plots. The Wild Palms tells the story of Harry and Charlotte, who meet, fall in forbidden love, travel the country together for work, and, ultimately, experience tragedy when the abortion Harry performs on Charlotte kills her. Old Man is the story of a convict who, while being forced to help victims of a flood, rescues a pregnant woman. They are swept away downstream by the flooding Mississippi, and she gives birth to a baby. He eventually gets both himself and the woman to safety and then turns himself in, returning to prison (from here, emphasis added).

Except for the sentence I italicised above, I don’t dispute this plot summary. I would simply suggest that part of the reason this book remained overshadowed by others arises from a “failure” of this diptych (two-part narrative) structure.

Certainly, it didn’t help that readers of the novel, then originally called “The Wild Palms” after one of the narratives in the book, might have felt confused by this—why, if both narratives matter, does the book title refer only to one of them, for instance? At the same time, one can hardly miss that the actual story told in the “Wild Palms” section will tend to have much greater emotional resonance, if only because it relies on much more “sentimental” material. Here, not only does Charlotte “brutally” choose to leave her well-to-do-husband and children to enter into a liaison that she knows, from the beginning, dooms her (in proper Faulknerian fashion), but her husband also very poignantly refuses to stand in the way, recognising that her love (however doomed, however ill-advised) has more reality for her than anything he has offered. By contrast, a convict and pregnant woman floating around on a river don’t have as much immediate resonance.[13]

At root, it remains difficult to shake the impression that Faulkner accidentally wound up with two short stories that became too long to remain short stories but didn’t have enough material to get worked into novels; in other words, then languished on the shore of that now-most-impossible of literary forms, the novella. And while the novella used to remain viable as a publishable genre—Dostoevsky’s “short” stories (like “The Double,” or “White Nights” or, arguably, even his “novel” Notes from the Underground) all would never have seen the light of day if publishers had no outlet for novellas—those days have long past. King already makes this point bluntly enough thirty years ago in his introduction to Different Seasons.

The stranglehold of publication that makes novellas unpublishable (and these days, even collections of short stories seem an endangered species) had not completely taken root in Faulkner’s time; he managed to publish his story “The Bear” on its own, first in a considerably shorter version in Saturday Evening Post in 1942, then later in his collection Go Down Moses, and also in a stand-alone format in 1958.[14] This complicated publication history—that tracks the inadequacy of the short story as a form, at least as far as the story Faulkner had to tell in “The Bear” and the difficulties of getting the not-quite-novel-length, but adequate version, published—may similarly have some influence on “The Wild Palms”/”Old Man” juxtaposition.

Nor do I claim that we must kowtow to authorial intention simply because an author intends something. If critics find a thematics of interplay between the two narratives of Faulkner’s book, they surely adduce whatever good reasons they have for doing so. That this assumes one must or should read the novel this way seems merely orthodox to me; I surely do not find anything nearly so necessarily interconnected in the narratives as critics tend to assume. Like Joyce, Faulkner warrants not just close reading but more “respect” accorded to their intentions, but at the same time, this needn’t mean that any “sudden” inspiration Faulkner had—that the two narratives could “inform” one another—means that he set out with malice aforethought to do so.

Whatever this case, what seems not much addressed about this book involves the more general literary strategy of the divided narrative, i.e., a narrative that cuts back and forth in particular between two narratives intended to have some kind of parallel structure or impression.

Of course, on the one hand, the divided narrative (described only in these terms) would seem one of the most elemental features of the novel, or its nineteenth century examples at least. So many novels consist, precisely, of shifting zones of focus—tracking at one point the goings-on of one set of characters or a sub-plot and then switching to another. But I would propose we may identify not just a quantitative difference—i.e., that two or more plot lines get drawn into a novel and followed—but also a specifically qualitative difference that what I call the “divided narrative” offers.

Here and now does not lend itself to any sort of full exposition of this idea, especially since Duarte’s book serves as the central jumping off point for this post. However, I think I can draw together the themes or issues I have raised here in a way that relates back to that book and the others referred to here.

One of the most integral parts of what I would call a “divided narrative” involves a deliberate authorial contrast between the two narratives presented.[15] One might immediately think of any number of books—especially in the swords and sorcery genre, e.g., above all Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings—but also movies that pull together many different strands of narrative; Tarantino’s (1994) Pulp Fiction certainly articulated this sort of thing (however well or poorly one wants to argue it did) but Kasdan’s (1991) Grand Canyon similarly tracks multiple strands of disparate narrative.

However—and we might debate this point for quite some time before nailing down the distinguishing description—the intention I wish to point to in the divided narrative specifically requires an overt authorial contrast between the (two) narratives presented. With Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, we do at least find ourselves confronted by a man and a pregnant woman and the steps they take in light of that circumstance, but I must say, at the very least, that this doesn’t yet supply enough interconnection to convince me that I should read them as parallel narratives. Similarly, we may imagine that the man and woman sowing chaos in the diner in Pulp Fiction have some intended contrast or thematic relationship with the boxer and his girlfriend, but this hardly as yet seems necessarily deliberate (on Tarantino’s part) yet.

Of course, critics and viewers (we all become critics at some point) may or can or will read such contrasts in, and at that point the author may simply have to stand aside. But I would still like to separate or acknowledge as distinct those works where the author deliberately and with malice aforethought establishes this kind of contrast as opposed to works where we do the greater bulk of that work. This distinction, at the very least, will not only help to differentiate “mere collections of stories” (Duarte’s, King’s, &c) from works that aspire to a sort of “sum greater than the parts” (Joyce’s, Gilchrist’s, Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, my Endnotes, &c).

Again, I suggest that the divided narrative in particular hinges especially on two contrasting narratives, and in this respect Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem provides an excellent example of the form, on the assumption that he wrote it with malice aforethought and did not, simply after the fact, realize the two stories could sit next to one another. In this sense, the divided narrative represents a sub-genre of the novel, which—as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace—may roam in abundance over any number of narratives (along with essays on the nature of history). However, even Tolstoy’s monumental novel still has a centre: for all that people may read it for the love story, Tolstoy intended Pierre as the central figure, as Prokofiev did not miss that point when he composed his opera based on the book.

By contrast, a divided narrative has no such centre; rather, we have something more (literally) like an ellipse, formed of two foci. And, again, Faulkner’s book provides this kind of experience, even if I still question how deliberately he meant it.[16]

For books like Joyce’s Dubliners, Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, and Gilchrist’s In The Land of Dreamy Dreams and Victory Over Japan, these do in fact have centres, i.e., all of the material gets organised toward making some kind of “unified artistic point”. Critics have expressed this regarding Joyce’s book that he has made Dublin its main character, and this point resonates with what “the South” means in Faulkner’s collection.

To honour at least the two of Gilchrist’s books mentioned, I have to say that the sense of a centre comes across more obliquely if at all. In Dubliners or Go Down, Moses, once one finishes reading these books, an invitation from both feels offered to the reader to make a kind of coherent sense of the whole, to somehow relate all of the stories into a “larger message”. In both books by Gilchrist, however, she collects the various stories into sub-groups—groups which, in themselves, already seem to reflect, refer to, pointing, or simply reprise other stories. On the one hand, it sometimes seems—rather like Flannery O’Connor’s stories but in a radically different way—that Gilchrist only has one story to tell, except that she has still curiously “distributed” it not just through different stories, but different groups of stories, and this (at the very least) suggests the presences, ultimately, of multiple centres.

Or, again, as in Joyce who only has one setting in Dubliners (Dublin) and Faulkner has only one setting (the fictional Yoknapatawpha County), with Gilchrist “place” comes out as plural, whether Arkansas or elsewhere, even when the stories themselves seem very similar.

Of course, a divided narrative—as I attempt to characterise it here—seems incompatible with any collection of short stories in the first place, if I would insist that two narratives makes for a crucial feature. One could write a short story that did this, although a general rule of short story writing insists on keeping a pretty intense focus on a single line of narrative. The short story form doesn’t well lend itself (the doxa goes) to the kind of rambling multiplicity that the longer form of the novel allows. Nonetheless, while Joyce and Faulkner give us two fine examples of collections that pull together their material into a “centred” meta-short-story of fiction, Gilchrist’s two books show us that even a collection can offer something more like a dual-centred work. Of course, most collections don’t bother with any “centring” at all, but simply provide a disparate collection of pieces.

In popular music, we could say that the sort of thing that Faulkner and Joyce accomplished in their books shows up as the “concept album” as compared to most albums that simply consist of a disparate selection of music (however unified by the personality of the songwriter). Thus, something like Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the Who’s Quadrophenia, which explicitly offer albums centred on “concepts” contrast with Animals or Who’s Next, respectively, however much both of these latter albums bear the imprint of Roger Waters and Pete Townshend.[17]

However, I can think of very little in music that resembles the sort of seemingly multi-centred work that Gilchrist offers.

But I have to say first: why do I bother with making this distinction at all? And what does this have to do with Duarte’s book?

For one thing, as a reply to his book, I may say nothing about it in fact. As I use the word, a “reply” amounts to a “response that would not have occurred without the input of the book (or work) in question)”. Duarte’s book does not offer a divided narrative, no. The way it resembles Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem involves extra-literary concerns, I assert. Faulkner had two works, both of which would have faced publications challenges (despite his fame—just as King had trouble finding outlets for the novellas in Different Seasons, despite his fame), and so he took the tack of glomming the two pieces together to at least make it into a “novel”. He then also would have provided (or not) a justification for this move, stating that the pieces inter-illuminated one another.[18]

I suggest this simply as a way to think about the book, not as a proven fact. And as a template for thinking about Duarte’s book, he provides us three narratives, one of which runs longer than the first two combined—and this in a book only 87 pages long. More briefly, it feels like even the first two narratives provided acts as little more than filler to justify publishing the book at all. Certainly a “less noble” impulse than in Faulkner’s case, since he self-evidently felt that both of the stories he’d written were essential things, worthy on their own.

Second, the existence of something like Dubliners, Go Down Moses, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, and Victory Over Japan—as also concept albums—shows us explicitly that heaps of disparate artistic elements (short stories, songs) may get arranged into “larger statements” even when those disparate elements were not necessarily originally intended to go together.

If you’ve followed what I’ve written, you could accuse me of speaking inaccurately. Yes. It seems likely that Joyce either set out to write a “concept album” (in literary form), or he discovered that he could along the way and made the necessary adjustments prior to publication. So also with The Wall or Quadrophenia—Pink Floyd and the Who set out from the beginning (it would seem) to write albums “centred” on a concept. By contrast, Go Down Moses and Gilchrist’s short stories seem more post-hoc artistic statements, taking a heap of pre-existing material and then sculpting or moulding them into “centred” artistic statements—with the caveat that Gilchrist’s sub-collections make for a sense of “multiple centres”.

Thus, on the one hand, we may say that Duarte had no vision of artistic unity, like Joyce or Pink Floyd, (between the three pieces he presents) when he set out to assemble this book and seems not to have made an particular effort after the fact, like Faulkner or Gilchrist, when offering these pieces together. I don’t fault him much for the first failing, but his inattention to the second possibility seems more culpable. Or, to put it even more simply, the only reason these three stories occur together boils down to economic reasons.

However, his laziness does not mean readers can’t or won’t try to make a coherent meta-narrative out of the offering. Fine. But let us not erroneously place credit then: we should compliment the genius (or daftness) of the reader rather than the non-craftsmanship of Duarte.

Having said at least partly how all of this relates back to (the failings) of Duarte’s book, and how those failings (which leave me nonplussed with respect to saying anything about the content or aesthetics of it) lead me to “reply” about divided narratives instead, I still feel curious to try to locate a musical example of a “divided narrative”—itself as part of the attempt to identify divided narrative (as a genre) per se.

Two albums come to mind: Kate Bush’s The Dreaming and Kansas’ Song for America. What makes me think of these concerns how they seem like something more than just a collection of individual songs without, at the same time, overtly suggesting “concept albums”. More precisely, one might readily or easily accuse these of offering concept albums, but what those concepts might consist of seems tricky to identify.

Wherever this might lead, I will leave for future posts. Thank you Gustavo Duarte for wasting my time with your book; I have found a way to turn that time spent into a more fruitful consideration of genre, divided narrative, the production of literary and musical compilations, and the opportunities they afford for saying more.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Duarte, G. (2014). Monsters! and Other Stories: Dark Horse Comics, pp. 1–87.

[3] King, S. (1983). Different seasons: Penguin.

[4] I imply that no thought goes into such sequencing—obviously, not necessarily so. King may have sequenced his novellas according to their chronological age, but that does not mean even then that the choice of sequence remains completely arbitrary or random.

[5] Joyce, J. (2001). Dubliners: Oxford University Press.

[6] Faulkner, W. (2011). Go Down, Moses: Random House LLC

[7] Gilchrist, E. (2013a). In the land of dreamy dreams: Diversion Books.

[8] Gilchrist, E. (2013b). Victory Over Japan: Diversion Books

[9] Faulkner, W. (2011). The Wild Palms:[If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem]: Random House LLC

[10] Dobbs, C. (2001). Flood: The Excesses of Geography, Gender, and Capitalism in Faulkner’s If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem. American Literature, 73(4), 811-835.

[11] Or at least I’ll say so; he remains my favourite US writer.

[12] (thanks, I think, to what critical reception we do have, if not Faulkner’s own claims, even as he often made up stories about his own stories)

[13] Again, I mean this simply on the level of plot. Faulkner’s writing does not flag or droop simply because he writes about less emotionally obvious material. If anything, “convict” “woman” and “river” permit him to delve even more deeply into “archetypal” language.

[14] Faulkner, W., & Fussell, P. (1958). The bear: Schöningh

[15] Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a tri-part divided narrative, but I might also, at least at this point, insist that a divided narrative may only ever consist of two.

[16] My insistent criticism merely questions how deliberately he did this. For if, on extra-literary grounds, he chose to place the stories together, then any “interplay” that results comes from our reading of the novel as such. More specifically, we actually create and write-in the interplay ourselves, in our attempts to “make sense” of the narrative as Faulkner gives it to us. This simply shifts where credit goes (to the reader, not the writer).

[17] And, of course, one might continue the comparison from more formal classical music, placing on the one hand the opera or the musical (as analogous to the novel) and the musical revue (as a collection of short stories). Thus, for any given concert performance, one might create a performance list designed to aim for more of a “total statement” of some kind, and this would more resemble a concept album, &c (or the sort of collection of stories that Joyce, Faulkner, and Gilchrist) have treated us to.

[18] I suggest all of this as a hypothesis; I do not know what justifications in advance or afterward Faulkner gave for structuring the book as he did. Whatever part laziness (on my part plays) also has in mind how Faulkner regularly misrepresented the intentions of his fiction in the press, so (unfortunately) simply to appeal to his statements or authority on the matter does not necessarily provide any sort of definitive window to answer the question.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Lat (1979)[2] Kampung Boy

This is a “precursor” volume to Lat’s later[3] (1980) Town Boy, here tracking his earliest life in a Malaysian village; I believe this book particularly put Lat on the map, at least for Occidental eyes. I chose this book (and Town Boy) for a reason similar to reading a first volume of Abouet and Oubrerie’s (2007)[4] Aya series; to get a view of elsewhere in the world (through graphic novels) without succumbing to orientalist cryptotourism.

Like Town Boy, the narrative consists of piecemeal memoir but here—and unlike in Town Boy—the diffuse heap of occurrences nonetheless seems to hang together more as a kind of narrative than in Lat’s later book. Part of this comes from the expectations generally associated with the genre of childhood memoir: we bring less expectation for reading about a definitive start-middle-end type of narrative when browsing the “diffuse” experience of children.

I do not mean fictionalized childhood memoirs (much less fictions about childhood) can only have this kind of diffuseness, this “aimless” quality of narrative that seems to dovetail with the undirected or “aimless” quality of so much of early childhood: books like Hesse’s (1906)[5] Beneath the Wheel and Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo’s (1965)[6] The River Between have explicitly non-indeliberate plot arcs set during childhood, and the genre of the Bildungsroman (the novel of character-building, or simply coming-of-age story)—Goethe’s (1795)[7] Wilhelm Meister’s Apprentice gets often cited as the earliest example in Occidental literature—while nonetheless a different genre, clearly present no intention at creating any sense of “aimless” narrative. Exactly the opposite in fact.

William Edgar Burghardt duBois—in his (1903)[8] Souls of Black Folk—described double consciousness in the following way:

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (¶5, from here).

In Dyer’s (1997)[9] White: Essays on Race and Culture, he quotes a person who once observed that “white people don’t seem to know they’re white.” The correlate of this, that links to du Bois’ point above, means that white people don’t recognise so readily or so often (if at all) their own double-consciousness, that “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on” (whether contemptuously, with pity, approval, or not). Just as the (dominant white) discourse insists that “other people are raced, we are just people” (Dyer, 1), so would other people have (or have to live a world of) double-consciousness, because we are just have single-consciousness.

And we can get away with that in Occidental culture because it provides the norm assumed by (white) people. It makes for a merely polite—impolite, rather, given its consequences—fiction that we live. But, like an insular assumption that holds only for the group doing the assuming, once we go outside of that space, we encounter other people who do not share that assumption.

Consequently, when confronting Lat’s book, which he wrote about and for a Malaysian culture with little or no consideration for its reception by a non-Malaysian reader, it becomes readily obvious that “outsiders” cannot read it except with a double-consciousness. More precisely, a reader might indulge orientalist conceits—whether to favourably exoticise the Other or to take up the usual anti-Muslim/anti-non-white tropes in the form of amused contempt or pity that du Bois identifies—but a less indoctrinated reader can only note how the book double-means simultaneously (for the acculturated “Malaysian” reader and the non-acculturated “non-Malaysian” reader).

As an important note, Lat wrote the book in English (with Malay terms included) not to reach an English-speaking audience but because the newspaper he worked for published in English. The original publisher later produced a Malay-language version of the book. In light of this, we may feel confident that Lat wrote as a local producer and not as a comprador intellectual, attempting to mediate for “the west” the “exotic” or “foreign” elements of Malaysian culture for an Occidental audience. So, since Lat does not set out with an intention to “explain” Malaysia to a non-Malaysian (non-Muslim or especially Occidental) world, then this requires an acknowledgment of double-consciousness on the part of “non-Malaysian” readers.[10]

When I say “non-Malaysian” I mean to point to those who do not have the kind of acculturation that permits a “Malaysian” reading (understanding) of the book. I do not mean, strictly speaking, “white” compared to “non-white” or “Occidental” compared to “non-Occidental” though clearly most “white” or “Occidental” readers will, in fact, lack the “Malaysian” acculturation to grant them access to a “Malaysian” reading of the book. In theory, a “white” person who grew up in Malaysia at the time might very well have a culturally competent (Airhihenbuwa, 1995)[11] reading of the text, just as someone of Malaysia descent not raised in the environment of the book might misread it in various ways.

This caveat in place, one may hardly deny that most people who pick up this book at their local library in the United States (or buy it from somewhere) will not have the cultural competence for a “Malaysian” reading of the book. And that unavoidably interposes the fact of double-consciousness, whether or not a non-Malaysian reader elects to acknowledge it or not.

Three examples from the book illustrate this well.

The most overwhelmingly likely “white” or “Occidental” misreading of this book will read it in universalist terms. Those aspects that analogize with “white” or “Occidental” patterns of childhood will get highlighted (in a favourable way) while “alien” or “exotic” or “otherly” aspects in the book will get overlooked or cast in a problematic light. The point here does not involve, for example, whether “all” children run and laugh joyously during childhood, but rather the insistence that such a claim may get made about “all” children in the first place.

We must keep in mind that the when the Occidental paradigm talks about human universals (of experience) it means, sometimes explicitly, more often only implicitly, Euroamerican “universals” (of experience). Thus, one finds psychologists (generally making arguments in naïve ignorance) and anthropologists (who presumably should know better, given their broader understanding of the variables of culture) insisting that one may speak of a universal experience of adolescence, for instance (Brody, 1965; Kiell, 1964; Mead).[12] That these works date from some half-century ago testify more to the fashion of the day than the on-going habit for such totalizing talk, at least as far as the human experience of “adolescence” worldwide goes, but it shows also a habit of generalizing that relies upon invalidly substituting “white experience” as the template for “human experience”. This echoes the point made by Heilbrun and Stimpson (1975),[13] who have no objection to works of art by and about men, so long as any claims to speak for “humanity” in such works authentically speak (1) in fact to strictly male human experiences, or (2) do not misapply or substitute “male experience” in place of “human experience” generally.

The most abrupt and glaring example of “exotic” or “foreign” (i.e., non-universal in a white sense) experience described by Lat concerns his circumcision, at age 10. I needn’t go into details—like all of the ceremonial aspects that go along with it—because already, by having genital mutilation occur not a few days after birth, when supposedly it leaves no scar (other than the absence of the foreskin), but rather at an age when one can hardly remain nonself-conscious of the event, then a whole arsenal of Occidental tropes kick in to treat this non-universal aspect of coming-of-age as a (Muslim) barbarism or whatnot.

I would point to, but leave aside here, the fact that making circumcision something that the entire community, including the one circumcised, participates in, as opposed to making it a medical (or religious) procedure in which the person circumcised has no awareness makes for a radically different experience, as wa Thiong’o attests to favourably in The River Between. He expressly speaks of how undergoing circumcision, which reads in his Kenyan experience as more intense than Lat describes in his Malaysian experience, changes him; he speaks to the head-space it prompts him to occupy and the sea-change it affects. This emphasis on the psychological rather than the physiological obviously makes a vastly different point than opponents of circumcision generally focus on, especially where female circumcision goes. But for all of the hysterics and histrionics expended by Occidental commentators on the barbaric practices of circumcision (male or female) around the world, Lat offers in his book the one page summary, “In two minutes it was over! It was not very painful. Just like an ant bite!” (105).

Whatever the claimed merits or demerits of circumcision, whatever the dubious arguments advanced in Occidental circles about the medical value or necessity of male circumcision or not (Spock, 1989),[14] and whatever the manifold and contradictory claims and evidences attested around female circumcision (e.g., Koso-Thomas, 1987;[15] Shell-Duncan & Hernland, 2000;[16] Toubia, 1994[17]), what I suspect most would agree upon would involve that when and where circumcision does occur, it should do so in a safe, sanitary, and socially supported way (as also for abortion). The horror stories we hear, as also the critiques of male circumcision in Occidental circles, serve to call into question the means or the circumstances under which circumcision occurs, not the practice itself.[18] No young woman should face the possibility of dying as a result of circumcision—so safe conditions, not eradication of the cultural practice, follows logically from the horror stories; similarly, males in the Occidental world who (rightly) object to genital mutilation they had no say or choice in points, again, to a problem of the means, not the cultural practice itself.

Contextualised in this way, the sequence involving Lat’s circumcision at age ten certainly places in the text a massive discourse that would re-frame what he reports in a (doubled-consciousness) way not intended by his book. I remember from an anthropology class in my college days reading about or seeing films on the Yąnomamö, Papua New Guineans, and the Nuer, and trying to find for myself whether I would want to live in those cultures, and generally answering no. I hardly think the purpose of such exposure wanted to prompt that question, but when invited to see how other people live, when it comes with no attempt to “placate” the dominant gaze doing the observing, the question probably occurs readily enough.[19]

The other moment involves a wedding that Lat attends. Here, again, the ceremonial differences in several places contrast markedly with Occidental (US) experience. And a reading hinges upon to what extent a non-double-conscious gaze resists (or can resist) Othering the people represented, whether in banal, effectively racist terms (“look how those people get married; it’s ridiculous”) or in voluptuously orientalist terms (“ooh, those foreign weddings are so cool and exotic”). This does not mean one cannot manage cultural appreciation; it means that one must begin by acknowledging the partiality of the gaze that frames how we look upon the Other in the first place.

Such an acknowledgment never becomes complete or total, though it does reach a point (a limit) where given our current frame of understanding can go no further. We can realise that our own aversion to getting circumcised at age ten points (in Malaysian cultural terms) to a professed desire to remain perpetually childish, i.e., never to actually take on the mind-set of an adult—a diagnosis that even Occidental commentators have directed at (US) culture more than once (Kiley, 1983).[20]

For Lat’s part, he has stated part of his reason for composing this book. With the success of his newspaper column Scenes from Malaysian Life, as his “fame grew, he began questioning his city lifestyle and reminiscing about his life in the kampung. Lat felt he and his fellow citizens had all forgotten their village origins and wanted to remind them of that” (from <href=”#Conception”>here).

This may explain the very different depiction of people in this book and Town Boy. In the later book, people regularly get twisted into all kinds of distorted shapes, often anatomically impossible ones. Similarly, while prominent teeth figure in both books, we find them far, far, far more plentifully (and often with more than a tinge of excess) in the later book. In general, particularly with his origins as a political cartoonist, Lat and others characterise his work as attentive to sensibilities and never “aggressively” pushing any envelopes. We might read this as overly safe or capitulatory, but one may still note that the change in presentation from one book to the next points to a pushing of an envelope, however gently or not.

Call it a kind of homesickness for his childhood, the first book (this one) does not permit a view of the “questioning of city life” (because it remains entirely set within the kampong) that the second book does, but it seems that the motive remains the same in both books. Once again, however, how easily one may quickly read this as the sort of infantile regression Freudians like to make such a fuss about. In point of fact, what Lat emphasises does not involve the experience of childhood so much as the setting of it, i.e., specifically the profoundly social character of lived experience. The childhood of the average US suburbanite has nothing of the deeply implicated social life that Lat depicts; we have nothing of the “city-wide festival” attending our circumcision. Our weddings may sometimes bring, in effect, the entirety of a child’s world into a single event and focus, but weddings don’t occur on a daily basis, whereas the sheer daily experience Lat depicts occurs ever and always within something like that total world.

Putting it too bluntly, one lives (tribally) face-to-face in the kampong in a way that town life, with its vastly more populated social structures, simply does not permit. This does not automatically condemn the city as a failed social structure, but it does show how one of the costs of city (town) life involves a loss of the unmediated sense of relationship with everyone around you; or, rather, that such an unmediated experience no longer becomes a tacit assumption one may expect of those around you. Your neighbour’s house no longer constitutes a place you may wander into at will (as a child or not). And so forth.

This yearning for social relatedness, as a loss suffered (or at least experienced as a dominant fact) in town life, does not in any way connect to infantile regression. In a culture like our own, where the monetization of social relationships has become a doxa of our lived experience, the very idea of a “tribal childhood” has become all but impossible, except in those places where environmental constraints lead to closed communities. Some of these communities do so deliberately (the Amish, the Mushketian Turks); some do so accidentally (towns or villages isolated by geographic features); some do so in a desperatized way (sorry for the weird word), i.e., ghettos hostilely encircled or cut off from city life by police, &c., or a place like Gaza, &c.

In general, however, the dominant mode of US culture fosters the opposite of a tribal childhood; in line with the dominant ideology, we emphasize more the individual over the group than vice versa (for example), so that our nostalgia for childhood does have more the character of a neurotic or regressive condition, because what we yearn for involves merely our own (undeveloped, naïve, childish) sensibilities—yearning for “simpler times” or “innocence all over again” from the “harsh lessons” that pseudo-adult life have “inflicted” upon us. We might remember fondly “the gang” we once ran with, but even our experience of that gang already remains deeply informed by the individualistic accent. No doubt, in such a culture, experiences in the military may very often provide something more like the kind of sense of belonging and “home” that Lat assumes as self-evident in his depiction of the kampong. I’d have to call it tragic that a best place to find “belonging” and “home” arises in a context that requires training for (if not the actuality of) participating in the destruction of other people’s lives around the world and domestically.

So our human desire for “community” already seems confused or misdirected, but to the extent that it points actually at the kind of interrelatedness that Lat assumes as a matter of course in his depiction of the kampong, then one may say with certainty that that longing represents something profoundly pro-social and not something regressive at all.

This doesn’t mean I have to exoticise the setting he depicts. The fact that I would not want circumcision at age ten helps to point to the reminder that (1) we do not invent our desirable social settings in generally (perhaps unfortunately), even as they remain the product of the power structure that supports and generates them, and that (2) the social structure I genuinely desire would not consist of one that merely gratifies my individualistic desires but would, in exchange for my assent to cultural norms, bring with it that sense of belonging that our current ideology of materialism so miserably manages to stand in for.

Endnotes

 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Lat. (2006). Kampung boy. 1st American ed. New York: First Second, pp. 1–141.

[3] Lat. (1980). Town Boy: Macmillan.

[4] Abouet, M, and Oubrerie, C (2007). Aya. (trans. H. Dascher). 1st hardcover ed. Montréal : New York: Drawn & Quarterly, pp. 1–106.

[5] Hesse, H. (2003). Beneath the Wheel: A Novel: Macmillan.

[6] wa Thiongʼo, Ngũgĩ. (1965). The river between. Oxford [Oxfordshire]; Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

[7] Von Goethe, J. W. (1989). Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship (Vol. 9): Princeton University Press

[8] Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of black folk: Oxford University Press

[9] Dyer, R. (1997). White: Essays on race and culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

[10] When I say “non-Malaysian” I mean to point to those who do not have the kind of acculturation that permits a “Malaysian” reading (understanding) of the book.

[11] Airhihenbuwa, C. O. (1995). Health and culture: Beyond the Western paradigm: Sage.

[12] See Brody, E. B. (1965). The Universal Experience of Adolescence. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 140(3), 235-238; Kiell, N. (1964). The universal experience of adolescence: International Universities Press New York; Mead, M. The Universal Experience of Adolescence (from here).

[13] Heilbrun, C, & Stimpson, C. (1975). Theories of feministic criticism: a dialogue. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 61–73. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[14] Spock, B. (1989). Circumcision—it’s not necessary. Redbook, 53. This seems a retraction of his earlier advocacy.

[15] Koso-Thomas, O. (1987). The circumcision of women: a strategy for eradication.

[16] Shell-Duncan, B., & Hernlund, Y. (2000). Female “circumcision” in Africa: Dimensions of the practice and debates. Female “circumcision” in Africa: Culture, controversy, and change, 1-40.

[17] Toubia, N. (1994). Female circumcision as a public health issue. New England Journal of Medicine, 331(11), 712-716

[18] Such critique would comprise a separate argument.

[19] Some naïve people might think this all suggests that only “whites” can adopt such a totalizing view of the world. The same sort of people tend to believe that white racism and “black racism” function identically within white supremacist culture. One can only find such naiveté or ignorance pitiable o offensive, depending upon whether the person gives up such a claim when corrected for their error. In a similar vein, if we find a totalizing view within Occidental culture by someone not from the dominant culture (often a comprador intellectual), then it remains just as naïve or ignorant to imagine that that totalization functions identically to such totalizations by the dominant culture. But this also means that when a totalizing culture like ours “reads” a totalizing gesture from within another culture, then the default involves our misreading it. Defining the Other as subaltern, we then cannot hear when the subaltern speaks (it no longer remains a question if the subaltern can). And so we will misread claims to universalism such as that found in the Malaysian writer Adibah Amin, quoted in Redza (2003),* who says of Lat:

He is at one and the same time childlike and mature, outrageous and delicate, Malaysian and universal. He always gets away with a lot mainly because his humour is utterly free from malice, sharp but never wounding, coaxing us irresistibly to laugh with him at the delectable little absurdities around us and within us. Typical Malaysian foibles most of these, yet as foreign fans testify, they touch chords in people from other cultures too.

* Redza Piyadasa (2003). “Lat the Cartoonist—An Appreciation”. Pameran Retrospektif Lat [Retrospective Exhibition 1964–2003]. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: National Art Gallery. pp. 84–99. ISBN 983-9572-71-7

[20] Kiley, D. (1983). The Peter Pan syndrome: Men who have never grown up: Dodd, Mead.

Summary (TLDNR Version)

This book displays the pathologies of patriarchy in a way thoroughly wrapped up in the usual emotional whitewash often invoked to justify it.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: D. TenNapel’s (2010)[2] Ghostopolis

I suspect that, had I not also recent read Pedrosa’s (2008)[3] Three Shadows (reply here), I would remain more baffled by how much I found this particular graphic novel so displeasing in many respects. I see several threads that point to this, and to try to bring them together requires getting them all out in the open so you can see them in the first place; so bear with me.

For one, the description repeated above has several misleading parts to it.

A page-turning adventure of a boy’s journey to the land of ghosts and back. Imagine Garth Hale’s surprise when he’s accidentally zapped to the spirit world by Frank Gallows, a washed-out ghost wrangler. Suddenly Garth finds he has powers the ghosts don’t have, and he’s stuck in a world run by the evil ruler of Ghostopolis, who would use Garth’s newfound abilities to rule the ghostly kingdom. When Garth meets Cecil, his grandfather’s ghost, the two search for a way to get Garth back home, and nearly lose hope until Frank Gallows shows up to fix his mistake.

The first part of the book, in fact, involves his mother dealing with the fact that Garth has a terminal illness; we also learn that the mother has virtually erased her father from her consciousness because of his alcoholism. These issues start the book off with some strong, albeit “easy”, emotional resonance—and to pitch the book as merely some variety of “boy adventurer” (for some reason) elects to create a false impression about the book.

Similarly, the detail “Suddenly Garth finds he has powers the ghosts don’t have” puts an emphasis in the wrong place; everyone mortal who goes to the afterlife has (at least in potential) the ability to use their imagination to do magical things (like fly, alter reality, &c). The book takes the conceit that the laws of physics that govern the living in the real world do not apply to the living in the afterlife, and vice versa for ghosts. Again, the description creates the wrong impression: it sets an expectation that Garth will function like a superhero—and, indeed, for no apparent reason his mortal powers of imagination in the afterlife do exceed that of others—but Frank still emerges as the necessary part of an eventual victory.

I have to pause. I know very well that backs of books exist not to inform people of the contents but to tempt them into buying the book. My objection hinges neither (1) on my own disappointed expectation—I read the book summary only after the fact—nor (2) on some principled objection to the lying (marketing) that book-backs do. Rather, I use the back of the book to sketch in (for you) the sort of narrative discourse that this book positions itself in, especially as it contrasts with claims made (on the back of the book) about that discourse. In other words, how the book back misrepresents TenNapel’s narrative implicates the narrative itself.

So, then again we have that Garth finds himself “stuck in a world run by the evil ruler of Ghostopolis, who would use Garth’s newfound abilities to rule the ghostly kingdom.” Clearly, the blurb writer has not read this book; the evil ruler—a usurper, one might add—simply wishes to destroy Garth to avoid the challenge Garth (theoretically) offers to his power. Garth, however, has no aspiration to toppling rulers—and the impression created here seems one where Garth places himself in the middle of some political intrigue (as the most central and important element), when in fact 90% of his motivation involves nothing of the sort. Also, because good and evil remain utterly unambiguous in this fantasy, Garth unquestioningly (and unconsciously) permits himself to get used (politically) by the “good” guy to topple the bad guy.

This description of the book, while generally and merely a piece of ad-text, no doubt aspires to try to summarise something of what the author himself might identify as an intention in his work. Consequently, we can see that intention and work stand in a rather incoherent relation to one another.

This often comes across painfully in the book itself, at both the macro-level of the narrative and in specific moments.

For a macro-level example, having established that Garth has a terminal illness and that his mother never spoke again to her father after a certain point in her life, in part or apparently because of his alcoholism, Garth meets his own son in the afterlife. His son looks very old, because time works strangely in the afterlife; or, more precisely, the book claims that one’s “inner age” provides the form one takes. Thus, he encounters his grandfather as a boy his own age at first. We get no explanation why Garth’s son’s “inner age” clocks in at a hoary 80 or so, but meanwhile, of course, Garth reacts with surprise to learn he has a son at all.

TenNapel did not establish when Garth’s terminal illness would kill him. The matter gets covered in only one page of the book:

DOCTOR: It’s incurable.

MOTHER: Then how long does he have? If you know so much, how long does he have to live.

DOCTOR: Nobody can say. It’s our job to fight it and keep Garth as comfortable as possible.

MOTHER: He’s too young to die. He’s just too young! (13)

So we already have no reason to believe Garth could not live to reproduce. But the far more obnoxious part involves how this plot element gets resolved. Garth sees an old man:

GARTH: Grampa? How did you ever make it back here?

SON: I’m not your grandpa. His ghost is back on Earth.

GARTH: But you look just like him.

SON: Your grandpa’s features run in the family, in your grandpa, in you … and in your son.

GARTH: There must be some mistake. You can’t be my son! I have an incurable disease—

SON: –they find a cure (256–).

I don’t know that one could possibly provide a cheaper or more trivial treatment of this issue. Similarly, as far as Garth’s grandfather’s alcoholism, which led Garth’s mother to never speak to him again (a pretty serious degree of alcoholism, one would think), Garth initially raises the question when he meets his grandfather in the afterlife.

GRANDPA: Is your mother still … you know … mad at you?

GARTH: You have no idea, Gramps! I’m not even allowed to bring you up. Something about earrings …

GRANDPA: … oh, the earrings. Your mother came home with pierced ears on her sixteenth birthday, with a pair of these long jingle-jangle earrings hanging down!

GARTH: …and?

GRANDPA: And that’s it. I threw a fit. She ran away and I never saw her again.

GARTH: You didn’t talk to each other for twenty years over a pair of earrings?!

GRANDPA: Over a pair of earrings! Times were different back then.

GARTH: What about the part where you were drunk?

GRANDPA: Oh yeah, and there was that (88–9).

This actually reads as pretty gross to me, and the denouement comes off no less brief and trite. Garth returns the earrings (from the afterlife) to his mother.

MOTHER: Garth, where did you get these?!

GARTH: They’re from Grampa. He says he’s sorry.

MOTHER: From … Dad?! Do you think … do you think he knows that I forgive him? (264).

Not a word about Garth’s terminal illness—the narrative complacently believes it has solved that problem—ore the father’s alcoholism, but instead TenNapel supplies a complacent looking grandfather ghost taking flight off into the night sky, and on that note the book ends.

As such, whatever emotional legitimacy seems invoked by the themes at the beginning of the book get exposed as contrivances not taken seriously by the end of the book. To cite Chekhov, the gun got introduced in the first act, but misfired (or no one tried to fire it at all) in the fifth act.

By itself, this piece of failed promise might not only leave a sour readily taste in one’s mouth, but this problem of gross narrative missteps colours the book from start to finish. I won’t enumerate them all, but will highlight some of the more egregious examples.

Not quite so horribly done, Frank Gallows’ arc of redemption nonetheless wobbles pathetically on the way; more precisely, TenNapel provides nothing like enough narrative grist to “sell” Frank’s redemptive act at the end. He represents, on a much more limited scale and with less aesthetic cuteness, the Donnie Darko type, where an author asks us to accept the sacrifice of one’s life at the end as a redemption for all of the whining, entitlement, and general bad human behaviour committed previously. Dickens’ Sidney Carton in his Tale of Two Cities offers an even older (and definitely far more detailed and complicated) redemption arc, but it shows as well why Frank Gallows (and Donnie Darko) don’t cut the mustard.

The premise of a redemption arc: someone behaves badly and then gives their life in something resembling a noble self-sacrifice. Carton’s final speech makes this explicit, but in the case of Carton and Darko both, their sacrifice remains total: they stay dead. Carton claims he shall go to a better place than he ever has before, and Darko simply smiles with a gratuitously enigmatic peace, but Frank Gallows doesn’t stay dead at all—he simply reappears as a ghost in the afterlife. This “reward” (doled out by the author) comes off just as cheap and unmotivated as “they find a cure” as a solution to Garth’s terminal illness.

But the more obnoxious part of this involves its flouting of the human desire for fairness. IT demonstrates: “good things come to bad people who wait”. Theologically speaking, the death-bed conversion may make entire sense, but it still suggests we needn’t bother with being good people at all, if one can act the shit and get the reward at the end.

So, I suspect we try to make this unpalatable thesis palatable by imagining that the shitty acts (by Frank Gallows, by Donnie Darko, by Sidney Carton) arises really and actually from a true heart of gold that suffers because of heartbreak, disappointed idealism, and so forth. If Frank Gallows (or Donnie Darko or Sidney Carton) at root offer us simply hurt little boys, then we understand their acting out in those terms and believe more readily—so the theory runs—in the whole-hearted goodness of their final sacrifice. Despising the world and treating it accordingly, they simply await the chance to make a gesture worth of their “hidden” goodness.

Sometimes sarcasm doesn’t come across the Interwebs; if not, this stipulates it plainly.

I won’t debate here to what extent Darko or Carton genuinely establish the case for their redemptive final sacrifice. In Frank Gallows’ case, his general obnoxiousness reads much more explicitly as mere male license. I found it gratifying in the initial encounter with his ex that she not only resisted his advances but stated bluntly that she would do him a favour only because it happened to coincide with her own interests. (She wanted to head into the afterlife anyway.) Of course, once again, this initial show of female independence collapses utterly in a male-authored fantasy of female goo, when she (of course) takes him back. This image or arc of “female understanding” itself already mirrors the discourse and tenor of the redemption arc in the first place; we find it in a billion examples and it not only fails the Bechdel Test, it also underlines the Trinity Syndrome.

For the record, my objection to this doesn’t involve only the political or feminist, but also the aesthetic; TenNapel simply tells this story cheaply and stupidly, and it makes for a waste of time. It also wholly distorts or obscures the fact that Claire Voyant[4] herself makes sacrifices as well, but apparently they don’t count. Through no action of her own, it seems, she gets elected Queen of Ghostopolis—yet another sloppy, unmotivated, trite, and abrupt resolution that purports to tidily tie up the loose ends. But whose story does this tell? Frank’s arc already hijacks the emotional centre theoretically set around Garth, so that Claire’s ancillary status as a functional nobody in the book (ultimately: “love interest” for the “sad male” constitutes no authentic role any more than “black maid” does) doesn’t even require “tying up”. At this rate, even the “dying boy” narrative becomes a contrivance for telling Gallows’ redemption arc. Especially since Garth’s redemption has nothing to do with his acts in the afterlife; though ostensibly the superhero, “they find a cure” saves him from death in the real world, so his actions bear no relationship to his redemption.[5]

It appears, when TenNapel applies himself, he can draw well. Some of the sketches of Claire Voyant’s uncle, a werewolf, have fine detail in the close-ups. And some of the imagery in the main battle sequence looks good too, but just as he short-shrifts emotional or narrative elements in his book generally, he becomes equally lazy visually. He also allows himself to resort to more-than-cliché attempts at humour. For example, confronted by an ostensibly formidable werewolf who brews tea (for no apparent reason), when Frank says he prefers coffee, the werewolf acts with high dudgeon. TenNapel provides a stand profile “show-down”—the werewolf’s face considerably larger than Frank’s—as the werewolf declares, “You will sits and drinks my tea or I will eats you here and now!” Frank busts up laughing in the next frame, then in the next shows feigned indifference plus sweat drops while the werewolf keeps its glare steady. And then, in the next frame, Frank has disappeared with the word “woosh” to show his cartoon-like skedaddle to go drink some tea, as commanded. And at the end of this whole sequence, having declared, “Okay, this is the best [tea] I’ve ever tasted” (126), he childishly runs away, yelling as he goes, “Oh, and your tea stinks! I loves coffee!”

Note here that he specifically mocks the werewolf’s way of speaking (the wrong conjugation on “I loves coffee”), which itself already represents a bizarre choice on TenNapel’s part. Then this follows:

CLAIR (to the wolf): We do have to get going.

WOLF: Niece.

CLAIRE: Yes?

WOLF: You loves him. Even this blind old wolf can see that.

CLAIR: We already tried, Uncle. He left me. That makes him bad news in my book.

WOLF: He’s afraid. He didn’t want his boss to find you and send you back to Ghostopolis. Love is in the acts, not in the feels.

CLAIR: You can smell all that?

WOLF: That or I tooted (128–9).

Charitably, one might say TenNapel feels awkward trying to get this scene to come off properly and goes for weak humour at the end to try to save it. I have to say, the line “He didn’t want his boss to find you and send you back to Ghostopolis” introduces an element into the book that nowhere else appears. Supposedly it explains why Frank left Clair, but (1) the wolf had no direct access to any of this information in the first place; (2) even if this follows, why do Frank’s fears prevent him from telling Clair why he must leave her?

What really matters here, I’d say, involves the entitlement of the sad male, who because of some fear (generously claimed on the part of the wolf), this makes abandoning Clair without a word utterly acceptable. It intends to make his shitty behaviour into a forgivable offense, which offers simply a poor apologetics—and a narratively unmotivated one at that—for Frank’s dickishness, which in this scene gets put on especially spectacular display.

This whole scene, drawn in red and black and one of the more visually striking sequences, also represents one of the lamest passages in the book narratively—the pathetic exit line “that or I tooted” (not even “farted”) serving as a fine emblem for how off the rails TenNapel permits himself to go here. It matters as well that here Clair makes her most resolute declaration that it won’t work with Frank, not because of affect or whatnot, but because they’d already tried that. Of course, not only will this resolve not pan out, this profession also gets buried in the most puerile scene in the book—or the most narratively spastic. Frank behaves in certainly his most childish way, but TenNapel also resorts to no shortage cocky and complacent looks on Frank’s part (he really can’t take any of this seriously) and the werewolf too wobbles between legitimately ominous looking and exaggeratedly goofy, with goo-goo eyes and ridiculously exaggerated fingers.

But most of all how he speaks. Maybe TenNapel deploys some pun in making the werewolf a teashop owner, but with his rings and nose ring and shawl, he not only seems more like a stereotypical crystal-ball reading gypsy, he also seems (for that reason) less masculine. The transcription of his accent as well exoticizes him in a Slavic sort of way, and perhaps some of the tea paraphernalia TenNapel supplies should invoke a samovar and the Russia habit of drinking tea.

So the figure comes across as a narrative mess. Although a werewolf (for no apparent reason), he himself refers to himself as a wolf, and the obvious connection to the big bad wolf can hardly get missed. But that big bad wolf had transvestite tendencies (disguising himself as granny), and maybe TenNapel gets this werewolf’s gender ambiguity from there. Meanwhile, the ready contempt for the werewolf Frank permits himself to assume resonates with heteronormative arrogance, in fact, and TenNapel’s resort to potty jokes and childishness contextualises (if it does not inform) both this werewolf figure as well as the most serious expression of relationship resolution that Clair makes.

This represents the most extended sequence of such puerility on TenNapel’s part, i.e., not just puerility on the part of the characters but in the narrative choices he makes. As simply one other example, during the battle with the “evil ruler” the ruler declares, “I have one thing you don’t have that gives me the advantage” (228) and Garth replies, “Diarrhea?”

Besides the stupidity of this, TenNapel seems to believe (by making this choice) that it enhances the epic quality of the scene he attempts to portray (the battle between good and evil). And this choice does not simply hinge on Garth’s childishness, because later he compliments himself by having Frank tell Garth, “Diarrhea. That was a good one!” (253). This reminds me specifically of the moment in Donnie Darko when his love interest declares she has to write an essay about the most important invention ever, and Donnie answers with complacent certainty, which serving with obvious transparency as the mouthpiece of the screenplay writer’s own opinion. An equally obnoxious moment occurs in this book when Garth talks to his son. In a sequence where TenNapel draws Garth with all of the cheap patheticness he can must to make him look “stricken” or “sad,” Garth asks his son, “Was I … was I a good dad?” And his son (as an old man) answers, with a Rasputin-like look of earnestness, “You’re the greatest man I ever knew” (258).

Ugh.

This makes for literally shitty narrative (I mean more the “diarrhea”), but TenNapel shits on his own book in a more macro way as well. Just as one finds no good reason for the bizarre nexus of transvestism, contempt, and othering of the werewolf or the random fart jokes, TenNapel pushes out random fight sequences, probably on the basis of some formula in a book about how to write a comic that might turn into a movie. But even these fight sequences can’t make sense because, as occurs at the end of the book, Garth has always had access to above-normal powers in Ghostopolis. With a smug smarminess, after Garth gets told to use his imagination to find a way back home, TenNapel can’t even gracefully handle this, and has Garth say, “Oh, sure! I could have made my own way home using my power of imagination?! Fine, I’ll just create … a doorway back home” (257).

It appears we should accept Garth could not have previously realised this, which seems untenable given how blatantly obviously the point reads for a reader. But also, unless we presuppose some unique level of imagination (superior even to the Tuskegee airman who built the place in the first place), then we have no reason to think that only Garth (as a mortal) can do this sort of thing.

However, I don’t want to dignify the narrative with more than it warrants. Consistency of world-building in works of fantasy represent a baseline requirement of the genre. Not to meet that bar excuses us from trying to explain narrative events in world-terms. The attempt to do so amounts exactly to the same kind of effort by children to explain their alcoholic parent’s behaviour. It shifts blame for the chaos to the child, and the same occurs here as well—the unaddressed issue of alcoholism in the text helping to point to this fact.

TenNapel has literally and thoughtlessly cobbled together a narrative, perhaps responding to his own childish impulses along the way rather than working like an adult to do the (hard) work of actually crafting a serious story about series issues. He grabs snippet from some sad biography (involving dying children and/or mothers estranged from their alcoholic and grossly negligent father) and then makes fart jokes, treats those themes trivially, acts like any problem can be solved with a magic wave of a wand (or usually literally only one page of dialogue) and, along the way, permits himself some casual racism or homophobia. I won’t even go into any detail about the fact that of the several sub-rulers of Ghostopolis, all of whom have been manipulated by the “evil ruler”, only the bone king from the Northern Kingdom offers any resistance to that misrule.

In all of this, we see how the emotionally manipulative tropes of dying (white) boy and sad (white) male structurally arrange the elements of narrative into the sort of story that has nothing narratively unexpected in it. The trivialization this affects, ultimately if not by design then simply for the sake of entertainment, shows (in an admittedly clunky way) the ruinous effects of patriarchy. Who wants to have to live the pathetic life of Frank Gallows, only in order to sacrifice oneself in order to obtain the vagina of one’s dreams—I say vagina of one’s dreams, because to arrive at the point of reclaiming Clair Voyant, Clair had to first cease being herself. She makes therefore a sacrifice but one not, properly speaking, valorised by culture, but rather merely one demanded of women by patriarchy. For Frank, the sacrifice demanded earns him the reward he wants; the sacrifice demanded of Clair gets her only the reward patriarchy permits her, not the one she wants.

We tell ourselves myths not simply to explain the world but also to orient ourselves within a confusing world. Just as Pedrosa (as an author) confronted the death of a close friend’s child when he wrote Three Shadows, we don’t have to assume that TenNapel similarly processes any autobiographically specific occurrence, but dying children (dying boys anyway) can motivate people to try to “find answers” to that tragedy. In this respect, it probably matters that no “god figure” appears here—unless we count the Tuskegee airman who built all of Ghostopolis. Hard to tell if this amounts to a historically cognizant or merely insensitive acknowledgment that “reality” (i.e., Ghostopolis or the United States) got built on the backs of kidnapped human beings. In which case, do we get to blame Africans for making the US?

In any case, TenNapel seems to want to leave “culpability” out of the picture. It remains enough for him to posit a fantasyland where one may readily thwart the laws of physics (and disease, one assumes) with the force of imagination. I don’t lack sympathy for such an urge to find peace or solace—I disagree with “pragmatic” activists who scorn analytical or creative reflection, seeing it as unnecessary. Not only may we often need to better strategize in advance how to proceed, simply to find ways to have peace of mind prior to proceeding seems often necessary, since people who suffer greatly have a tendency to act like fuck-heads to others—as Zionist Israel makes obvious.

What I object to, rather: in articulating the consoling fantasy, TenNapel merely reproduces the grossest faults of patriarchy as if they offer solutions. We simply need to reward bad men for being bad (like Clair’s grandfather) and need to construe our future course of action by suffering the shittiness of the Frank Gallows of the world, up to the point where they finally decide to kill themselves for a noble cause—a fantasy that (as a solution) offers one no less childish than making poop jokes.

But the deeply level of injustice at work in this involves the roles for the Other in all of this. Clair must sacrifice her independence—and patriarchy promises her a throne as a result. Nothing ever gets said about what shall happen to the Tuskegee Airman, now that the evil overlord has gotten overthrown; perhaps he will still have to labour in obscurity, the unacknowledged economic base of the kingdom. Similarly, this androcentric solution, that requires male suicide and dying son’s, requires also the denigration of the most Other other in the book: the curious half-man, half-wolf, cross-dressing, not-quite-white Slav.

In brief, the back of the book gets it unfortunately right when it describes Garth’s narrative as a “boy’s adventure”. What TenNapel gives us amounts to adolescent pap. It wheels out, in a pejoratively childish way, everything the book starts to reach for but then backs away from with off-hand (poorly placed) jokes, &c. Taken as a personal statement, the book may (1) bring TenNapel some mental peace or (2) some money, but taken as a framing of social reality (much less a serious one), the “solution” it offers requires—presents factually, I would even say—the denigration of the Other as a necessary precondition for the (mental) well-being of (white) people.

Awful, with some nice pictures sometimes.

Endnotes

[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve given up on this project for reason stated here.

[2] TenNapel, D. (2010). Ghostopolis. New York: Graphix/Scholastic., pp. 1–266.

[3] Pedrosa, C. (2008). Three shadows. 1st American ed. New York: First Second, pp. 1–268.

[4] For the record, no other character gets such a silly or transparent name.

[5] Unless we want to invoke some karma or justice mechanism the book does not. No divine wisdom (except TenNapel narrativizing) rationalizes Garth’s rescue from terminal illness in terms of his good deeds.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Camus, Abadzis, & Probst’s (2014)[2] The Cigar That Fell In Love With A Pipe

The more I think about this graphic novel, the less I have to say.

I selected it because the illustrator Nick Abadzis & H. Sycamore’s (2007)[3] Laika had much to recommend it (more narratively than visually); and in the case of that book, Abadzis wrote the story as well as provided the illustrations (along with Sycamore).

Here, it seems that Camus leans far too much on the namedropping that comes with Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, and it seems unlikely—perhaps I get this wrong—that the central conceit of the story, that an (actual_) cigar producing enterprise in Cuba had a legendary, overweight, female cigar roller, Conchita Marquez. Not only her style of rolling, but the fact of the sweat arising from being overweight adds—in the conceit of the narrative—to the experience of smoking a cigar by her.

Ultimately turning out as allergic to nicotine, she gets shipped by her (greedy) husband to a Swiss sanatorium for treatment, but never makes it. Rolling cigars to the end, even though she reacts allergically, she dies but not before meeting a pipe-carving sailor on the ship who inspires love in her. &c. Hence, the cigar that fell in love with a pipe.

I could isolate throw-away details in the text that functionally unintentionally ironically. Orson Welles, for instance, has a black maid, who does little more than merely appear in the text, and one could have leveraged some kind of link between her and Conchita, but the authors decline to do this. significantly, the single-mindedness of Conchita Marquez’s cigar-rolling makes her immune to the usually nonsense surrounding women and love; i.e., she has more important things to do than play Steppin Fetchit for someone with a penis. However, not only does the book explain this as a result of her fatness and ugliness—at least she doesn’t suffer from the financially mercenary marriage of convenience her employer tricks her into—she does in fact “lose her mind” over the sailor she sees on the boat. This, because he smokes tobacco from her beloved factory, but the narrative still (1) paints her as neurotic rather than accomplished in her cigar rolling, and (2) not properly fulfilled except by a quixotic quest for union or at least proximity to the sailor, or his symbolic stand in, his pipe.

In fact, the whole of (male) (cigar-puffing) pleasure devolves to her ugliness and obesity; because of it, her sweat adds a tinge to the puffing pleasure that has no peer, all the more so as Orson Welles smokes the last three that Conchita ever rolled, dying of allergic toxicity as she did. Although you’d think otherwise, there seems nothing in the text to suggest we should read this as an allusion to the cigar delectations of then-President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s vaginal tang.

Poe declared no more compelling story exists than the death of a beautiful woman; or, in this case, the death of a fat, ugly woman who nonetheless has a quality that titillates or serves male pleasure; i.e.,, it proves the rule without providing an exception. The tragedy of Conchita’s story as the novel constructs it, then, does not involve the social circumstances that result in her death (the male privilege that demands her literal blood, sweat, and tears) but her frustrated longing for love as the only thing that can bring her true satisfaction.

Supposedly this echoes in a kind of reverse way. Orson Welles discovers Conchita’s spirit in the last cigar and places it with the pipe so that she can attain her desired happiness. But Rita Hayworth, presented as a relentlessly selfish and inadmirable bitch, decides to smoke the cigar, just to make Orson mad, and doesn’t even enjoy it, stamping out the remainder without finishing it. As a quintessential antithesis of Conchita (svelte and beautiful, but also selfish and heartless) we have a wealth of possible themes and connections that the author(s) might have explored, but in the end, Rita exhibits simply a (patriarchally conceived and) Eve-like perversity, ruining everything. So that Orson’s (paternalistic) kindness—placing the cigar and the pipe together—gets as negated as Conchita’s desire to be with the pipe.[4]

So we see a frustrated desire on the part of Welles (a male). His noble gesture—rather not in keeping with the rest of his presentation—gets ruined by female connivance. I think the authors except us to infer some simpatico between the frustrated desire of Conchita and the frustrated gesture that Welles makes, but the parallels bear almost zero similarity. Conchita’s sacrifice involves in the first place her life and then passively rely upon male agency to bring about that which she (implausibly) gets written as most desiring. Welles’ sacrifice involves not smoking the last (of three) cigars—hardly a full denial of pleasure when he has indulged it at least twice already—and then the actively self-congratulatory act of placing the pipe and cigar together, in effect making a great show of his generosity and self-denial. He certainly had no care whatsoever for whatever travails Conchita had gone through to make all of the other cigars she’d ever made (and the two Welles had smoked). In fact, precisely her suffering makes the sweetness of the two all the more poignant. Only when confronted with her ghost, which expresses a desire not to roll cigars (self-fulfillment) but to get placed near the pipe (masculine fulfillment) does Wells change his tune and “become generous”.

Since ghosts thematically refer to how the past haunts us, we do not have to read the ghost story element of this book in literal terms. What does this haunting mean, for instance, for Welles? In a banal way, we see Conchita’s devotion (to the pipe) as an antithetical contrast to Hayworth’s ugly selfishness. Haunted by a devotion he desires to have (or had once, in Hayworth or someone else), Welles takes pity on himself, as it were, and grants Conchita’s wish. In this context, it matters that the pipe says nothing. In fact, on the ship he specifically rejected Conchita, perhaps without words., and so it continues here. The pipe never indicates one way or another whether it desires proximity with the cigar, and so Conchita’s desire (filtered through Welles’ sensibility) gets turned into mere license, the same sort exhibit by the men who except Conchita to ultimately kill herself for their pleasure. This same lens makes Hayworth into a raging “ugly” bitch, the Conchita/Hayworth ugly/beautiful axis getting reversed in a typically conventional way.

One would like something more than this in the haunting—after all, the narrative involves Cuba—but it seems that the possible hauntings that might arise in that context get sacrificed to the typical tropes of patriarchy. In this respect, the cover of the book speaks volumes. It brags that it features Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth, but only Welles features in any kind of significant way. The threat to the union of the cigar and the pipe arises initially from a little boy, and Hayworth only steps in to finish that gesture. All the same, presumably Welles and Hayworth get selected for this text for some kind of sumptuousness of relationship, I suppose—Liz Taylor and Richard Burton might have sufficed, had Burton been a cigar aficionado. But the cover of the book also provides the image of Hayworth smoking a cigar—and looking like she happens to enjoy this one (with her eyes closed). This suggests that the authors never had anything broader in scope than “frustrated” love.

Of course, the back of the book asks, “can love triumph over adversity, or does it all go up in smoke?” But it insists also that the book ranges “from the heyday of the cigar industry to the glamorous heights of Hollywood’s Golden Age,” which simply doesn’t happen. Almost all of the action in the United States occurs in Welles’ study, and nothing of the “glamorous heights of Hollywood’s Golden Age”. As a failed conceit, we might still wonder if this points to a haunting as well?

Of course, the mere facts of human history but also the specific facts we now have in abundance about the history of Hollywood attest that the entire façade of such a Golden Age has as much reality as a Hollywood set or a Potemkin village. The glamor of that age got purchased very much at the expense of women and the lone Black person (in the United States) playing the inevitable role of “black maid”. Abadzis’s previous book (see here) seemed amply informed by his own geographical displacement, but here he has no access (presumably) to dictating that theme find presence in this book. Perhaps Conchita’s displacement from Cuba toward Switzerland resonated for him and made it appear in this book. Precisely because she smells the tobacco of her lost home country does she lose her mind for the man who smokes it—one could almost say that she falls in love with that and not the sailor at all.

But what lost place haunts Welles then? To the extent one may read this theme (of displaced persons) out of the text at all, it certainly doesn’t seem present on the principal author’s part.

Endnotes

 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge.

[2] Camus, D., Abadzis, N., & Probst, J. (2014). The cigar that fell in love with a pipe: [Featuring Orson Welles & Rita Hayworth]. London, England: SelfMadeHero, pp. 1–110.

[3] Abadzis, N., & Sycamore, H. (2007). Laika. New York: First Second, pp. 1–205.

[4] Just logistically speaking, the novel has to go rather out of its way to provide the contrivance to permit Rita access to the locked cabinet where the pipe and cigar rest. The pair (the pipe and the cigar) have already narrowly averted one disaster, when Rita’s visiting brat-nephew gets discovered trying to steal the cigar. As soon as Rita prevents this, she then proceeds to smoke the cigar herself. The narrative suggests that Welles has taken adequate precautions to protect the cigar and the pipe, while only an unreasonable degree of perversity on Hayworth’s part drives her to (1) find the key, (2) decide to smoke the cigar—not for any real good reason, I must add, (3) and actually follow through on the plan. One very readily will find little fault with Welles and all fault with Hayworth, but in a patriarchal world some woman-baiting rings disingenuously. If Rita must act the bitch, this arises from a social environment that inequitably treats even a world-renown star like her as less than Welles (or other males), &c. The authors present her as a parasite, producing nothing (but trouble), in contrast to Conchita, who unselfishly sacrifices even her life for the sake of making cigars (that men consume with inordinate pleasure and gusto).

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Pedrosa’s (2008)[2] Three Shadows

This graphic novel, which for this author “was born out of the agony of watching his close friends’ child die very young” (dust jacket), has some very effective passages. A family (father, mother, son) find themselves being watched by three ominous horsemen and the sense of danger and threat the author generates works very well. Learning the figures have come for the son, and that the parents cannot save him, the father takes him on a journey in an attempt to escape.

It must seem cold-hearted to enter into any literary analysis about the feelings of parents who lose children, especially when the book comes from a witness to the suffering of other parents, but in the first place, I can criticize the book without impugning the kindness and good-intentions on Pedrosa’s part writing in response to what he witnessed. In fact, if the piece has an social significance, it must necessarily arise from whatever we can abstract or extract generally from the very specific circumstances he witnessed.

Beyond this, however, I would resist the terrorism of suffering. In our human desire to recognize the suffering of others—i.e., not to dismiss it—we find also a counter-narrative whereby those in pain (or sometimes their defenders) make them the unassailable centre of the world. When someone howls, “I’m in pain,” between an inhuman, “well buck up” and an anti-social “I’ll get whatever you need” we could use a better, third alternative.

Although Poe said the death of a beautiful women makes for the most compelling story, the death of a child certainly makes for one of the easiest and laziest of narrative manipulations. Mahler’s Kindertotenleider offers an especially gross and kitschy example, but the almost literally sacrosanct protective shroud wrapped around dead children—in a culture that shows a naked ugliness in its disregard for the death of children of colour—makes this veil require not puncturing but annihilation.

More precise, we may distinguish between the personal effects (and uses) of dead children as far as parents (or people who would be parents) goes compared to the structural effects and uses of dead children on the part of Power (i.e., the State, &c). In terms of controlling discourse, people, and culture, Power leverages or exploits peoples personal responses to dead children in order to coerce cooperation with or complicity in the agendas of Power.

And when a book gets published, it becomes a social gesture. And so it no longer exists as only a personal matter; it becomes a part of the structural, social world it occurs in, and thus (advertently or not) becomes complicit in or cooperates with the structural patterns that Power uses dead children for. &c.

This should strike no one as controversial. I make this distinction in order to forestall or anticipate objections that use a personal analytic, rather than considering the book in its social existence. For all books, this always remains true, and it leads down the well-worn path of “subjectivity” versus “objectivity” or “matters of taste” versus “matters of literature” or “untrained, amateur appreciation” of literature compared to “specialist, academic” analyses of literature, and the like. In its most elemental form, this simply means someone claims, “But I like the book”—bravo, who cares but you about that? Even to make the point as a matter of public opinion says nothing for anyone else, except to the extent that I do (or believe) I share tastes similar to yours and therefore might consume it myself.

And if we can blithely consign all of that to the exuberant “play” of “cultural discourse,” while we busily go on slaughtering Gazans and despoiling Afghanistan and the Congo of its “natural resources” &c., then by all means congratulate yourself for your public masturbation.

And I mention public masturbation because it stands as the opposite of the problem that a book like this presents: the public display of pain. Robin Williams’ suicide has brought out tidal waves of people personally responding to his death (understand), in some cases quite rightly demanding that their own kind of suffering that led them to contemplate suicide not go further unrecognized, but other commentators on the issue demands that the kind of suffering they experienced because of someone else’s suicide offers an argument for the further demonization of suicide as an act. You hear someone say, “My father committed suicide,” and the necessary social response to that boils down to, “I’m sorry you had that experience, but that’s no basis for a public policy on suicide.” More generally, the person who says, “I have suffered because of this or that” (in this book’s case, a dead child) does not automatically or necessarily advance a rationale for determining public policy about that suffering. And when a person acts like it does, I call that the terrorism of suffering.

Since one can hardly ignore the point, I will make clear that the behaviour of Zionist Israel offers the most cogent argument against the terrorism of suffering.

We do not pay doctors to handle our agony or suffering with kid gloves. Sometimes, we demand that they take a knife to our body, and commit atrocious violence to it (under anaesthesia preferably) in order to remedy our malady. To respond to howling suffering only or always tentatively, with kid gloves, hyper-gently, makes for (1) an unreasonable approach, especially when the person relies on the terrorism of suffering to place themselves at the centre of attention, rather than actually desiring a cure—by no means does this characterize everyone who suffers, but only a certain kind of sufferer—and (2) an ineffective means of treatment, especially in those cases where the person remains fearful of or resistant to the need for a treatment at all; once again, this by no means describes all people. Most who suffer want treatment, but not all; most who want treatment suffer, but again not all.

Because Pedrosa offers a book as a social artefact, it stands closer to something like a “proposed public policy” than a “merely personal statement”. Because the book involves a dead child, the habit of Power to elide the personal experience of dead children into forms of Power’s agendas, it becomes very difficult even to recognize this social artefact even as a social artefact. We can see a pattern of this in the dust jacket text.

What price would you pay to save your child?

For the parents in this powerful, visually stunning novel, the threat to their son is both real and frighteningly vague. Three shadows loom, and wherever the family flees, the shadows follow. Is escape impossible? Are parents even meant to try? …

[For Pedrosa] Three Shadows was born out of the agony of watching his close friends’ child die very young.

It begins with a direct address to “you” but couched in economic terms—that there might exist some “price” we could set on saving “your” child. But then it proposes, as a matter of public policy, that escape might remain impossible or, even if possible, “Are parents even meant to try?” Having proposed this public policy question—for if parents shouldn’t try, then we might make laws against any such attempts and/or we may certainly not bother wasting any public funds on those parents who do try, even though they should not.

I’d rather put it in a footnote, but that seems politically non-astute. Amongst those with vast enough financial wherewithal to do so (and sometimes for those who don’t have such resources), the “price” they pay may indeed prove enormous—and heavily subsidized by everyone who pays into the insurance system they access (for however long they can or do). I say this simply not to lose sight of the fact that asking what “price” “you” would pay may very well not involve only “you” in who that “price” gets met.

I say again, whatever “good” the personal reaction may bring this does not automatically protect us from the schemes of Power. Certainly, one of the more disappointing turns in this book involves the reveal that the three shadows consist of three quite benevolent (and pretty) females. They may have specific identities (one goes by the name Fortune, and they do not seem incarnations of the three Fates) but whatever threat and horror they inspired earlier gets wholly dispelled. They tell the (dead) boy that simply his time has come; no big deal—someday the three women will return for his father.

Blah, blah, blah … why were you afraid of death, &c. I reject this sardonically because the whole thing comes out far too partly. Why, for instance, did they terrorise the family for months? The principal answer: because Pedrosa wanted suspense in his book. But a much more obnoxious development in this: at the end of the book, we see the father and mother with two happy daughters, and as the father and mother hug, they share a moment of grief over their departed son.

I doubt it would have happened this way had they lost a daughter. But more, in this tidy replacement of the dead son with two daughters, I detect the grotesqueness of the book of Job, who received one hundred fold all of the wives and children slaughtered by שָּׂטָן (Satan) as part of his lost bet with יהוה (Yahweh).

We can see here very precisely how the personal and the structural can conflate. The lived, historical experience of these two human beings (to whom a reader might readily respond) includes their grief for the dead son, however much their lives now seem blessed or joyful in the presence of their daughters. But on a structural level, the unambiguous message that two daughters do not equal the “price” of one son rings loudly and clearly. And I say this certain that Pedrosa would hastily deny the point.

Readers may want to defend Pedrosa’s narrative choice (imagine, instead, had he provided the couple with another son), because parents do remember grief and because no amount of more children can wholly replace the one lost, which of course falls flat on its face, as any number of couples who keep having children until finally a son gets born attest.

But this crass sexism remains a minor offense compared to the larger one that (necessarily, helpfully) answers the despair of parental loss by invoking a metaphysical fantasy about the afterlife as a consolation. I mean, again, that our own “horror” or “terror” of death—as ably portrayed at the beginning of Pedrosa’s book—gets “answered” by the reveal: “death is not scary; relax.” That may do all well and good for us personally, but upon this myth will (and has) Power sent men to murder other men in other countries (or in Ferguson, MO). The “personal solution” to the problem of dead children (or death generally) re-inscribes itself as an even greater problem when Power takes hold of it and uses it to dignify (or excuse) its murderous rampages domestically and abroad.

This already seems heinous enough but on aesthetic grounds as well Pedrosa unnecessarily distorts his text further. Over the course of the book, it moves from something more or less realistic, albeit with the intrusion of the ominous horsemen, to a metaphysically magical world. Having (miraculously?) survived a storm “at sea”,[3] the father and son end up in the hut of something that soon enough reveals itself as something like a demon or spirit and imbues the father with gigantic proportions and strength (in exchange for his heart). Later, he gets beset by ghostly hordes and dies—though why his strength finally fails never gets answered.

All of this seems merely to set up a pointless digression in which the three women, now shown as pretty sweethearts, seek out a scumbag who has cheated death. Elaborately, though for no apparent good reason, they try to play a trick on him to deceive him, which goes off poorly, but he ends up dead anyway. And a vial he’d worn with some life essence or whatnot in it gets given to the dead boy, who uses it to bring his father back to life.

So besides this weak fifth-act introduction of a wholly new plot element—the three women could simply have had the necessary vial of life essence for reinvigorating the father; or he might not have passed out or lost his strength in the first place, &c—this episode raises a host of other dubious proposals. While the father and his boy have attempted to flee death (unsuccessfully), once it catches up with them, the happy news that death offers nothing scary after all doesn’t get the same reception from the man who cheated death. He does not happily assent and resists, though futilely. So, when Power tells us, “death is inevitable” (so let’s not waste public funds trying to keep it at bay), Pedrosa also adds, “and it is futile to resist it.”

Pedrosa humanly uses the hopelessness of this situation to quote, “Three lines that give me solace: in this our springtime there is no better, there is no worse. Blossoming branches burgeon as they must. Some are long, some are short.” And then adds (on the next page), “Stay upright. Stay with life” It seems the reference to “upright” links to the image of the tree on the page, and thus also the short and long branches. I also have to note that the sentiment of the poem quoted doesn’t (necessarily) accord with the metaphysical conceits of the book. By granting agency to death, and especially by invoking some notion of justice whereby someone who has attempted to cheat death gets put in his place (he also represents a morally reprehensible person who suffers in his afterlife), Pedrosa inserts a culpability for the occurrence of death that the poem does not (seem to) require or presuppose. The poem offers sheer happenstance that some (lives) are long, some short.

The clear message—appreciate what you have while you have it—finds support in the father’s own realization that he erred terribly by running away with his son, cheating his wife out of her interactions with him. This human message—appreciate who you have while you have them—rings less obnoxiously than the undesirable consequences involved in invoking (happy) afterlives, but it still wholly lacks any will to political action. Pedrosa (inadvertently) warns us, “Resistance is futile” and he protects that message—by protects, I mean how the fact that he has written a story about dead children such that it seems utterly non sequitur for me to object as I do here—by wrapping it in the sacrosanct zone of dead children. And by children, we should understand that as dead sons.

Lastly, one could write a piece about the unhappy androcentric bias in this piece. The mother goes to a witch (who inexplicably later commits suicide to no purpose), who tells her it the situation has no solution. The mother wholly assents to this, and the father alone sets out to defy death.[4] So when the book jacket says, “and wherever the family flees, the shadows follow” this “is” factually false; the mother gets left behind. And Pedrosa tells the whole narrative from the father’s point of view. Even so, one easily keeps thinking it is the boy speaking; the opening paragraph for instance runs:

Back then, life was simple and sweet. The taste of cherries, the cool shade, the fresh smell of the river … That was how we lived, in a vale among the hills—sheltered from storms, ignorant of the world, as though on an island, peaceful and untroubled. And then … everything changed.

This doesn’t sound much like a father, but also “And then … everything” changed not only has a kitschy ring to it, it doesn’t accord with the facts. We know that adolescents love to overstate things “(everything sucks”), and this kind of “everything changed” certainly reeks of such overstatement and, again, doesn’t generally denote how adults deal with the world. In fact, the house did not burn down; the father’s wife does not turn into a tree or a frog or a newt; his son doesn’t sprout wings; the horse doesn’t keel over, &c.

Rather, almost nothing changed, and certainly not at the very beginning. Initially, three ominous horsemen appear on the hill. The word “ignorant” in that first paragraph almost seems like an admission on Pedrosa’s part—ignorance providing a self-inflicted wound rather than a necessary one. The family deserves what happens to them because of this wilful ignorance and isolation—this adolescent, read childish, refusal to engage with life in its actuality. And life, especially, where death remains a blunt fact.

However, Pedrosa gives me no good reason to believe I should read “ignorant” not as “innocent” here. And the fact that the father claims, at the very outset, that “everything changed” must necessarily hinge on the fact that the son became “marked for death”. But the son does not constitute “everything” (again, that Pedrosa responds to the death of a son this way and not a daughter doesn’t seem accidental.) Heilbrun and Stimpson (1975)[5] cogently object to a (literary) criticism that proceeds as if texts about males stand in for texts about human beings generally. They find nothing wrong with texts that dramatize artfully the male or masculine experience, when it does not arrogate to itself a claim to speak for all people (i.e., men and women alike). Pedrosa’s text fails this test, insofar as it offers a father’s response to the death of a son as if it can or should stand in for a parent’s response to the death of a child (much less a mother’s response to the death of a son or daughter).

The fact that the writer of the dust jacket of this book permitted himself (or herself) to say that the father and son journeying together equals “wherever the family goes” specifically writes the mother out of the picture. We see here a case of the terrorism of suffering, that a father’s agony over the death of a son should allow him such license that the mother’s voice gets seen only through his lens (a typical problem of patriarchy) or that we may write her out entirely.

Endnotes

 [1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Pedrosa, C. (2008). Three shadows. 1st American ed. New York: First Second, pp. 1–268.

[3] I put this in quotation marks because in the book supposedly the journey crosses a river and should take three days, but for all narrative purposes, the river seems to transform into an endless expanse of water, and thus a sea. It seems like a continuity error.

[4] Some might say I overstate the mother’s acceptance of the witch’s decree. Whatever support she offers her husband’s desire to attempt to run away with the son, she also most vocally insists that the father should just accept fate.

[5] Heilbrun, C, & Stimpson, C. (1975). Theories of feministic criticism: a dialogue. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 61–73. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

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